The word "toponymy" is derived from the Greek words tópos () "place" and ónoma () "name". Toponymy itself is a branch of onomastics, the study of names of all kinds. In a more restricted sense, the term 'toponymy' refers to an inventory of toponyms, while the discipline researching such names is referred to as toponomastics.
Toponym is the general name for any place or geographical entity. Related, more specific types of toponym include hydronym for a body of water and oronym for a mountain or hill. A toponymist is one who studies toponymy.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "toponymy" first appeared in English in 1876; since then, toponym has come to replace "place-name" in professional discourse among geographers. It can be argued that the first toponymists were the storytellers and poets who explained the origin of specific place names as part of their tales; sometimes place-names served as the basis for the etiological legends. The process of folk etymology usually took over, whereby a false meaning was extracted from a name based on its structure or sounds. Thus, the toponym of Hellespont was explained by Greek poets as being named after Helle, daughter of Athamas, who drowned there as she crossed it with her brother Phrixus on a flying golden ram. The name, however, is probably derived from an older language, such as Pelasgian, which was unknown to those who explained its origin. George R. Stewart theorized, in his book Names on the Globe, that Hellespont originally meant something like "narrow Pontus" or "entrance to Pontus", "Pontus" being an ancient name for the region around the Black Sea, and by extension, for the sea itself.
Place names provide the most useful geographical reference system in the world. Consistency and accuracy are essential in referring to a place to prevent confusion in everyday business and recreation. A toponymist, through well-established local principles and procedures developed in cooperation and consultation with the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), applies the science of toponymy to establish officially recognized geographical names. A toponymist relies not only on maps and local histories, but interviews with local residents to determine names with established local usage. The exact application of a toponym, its specific language, its pronunciation, and its origins and meaning are all important facts to be recorded during name surveys.
Scholars have found that toponyms provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region. In 1954 F. M. Powicke said of place-name study that it "uses, enriches and tests the discoveries of archaeology and history and the rules of the philologists". Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration.
Toponymists are responsible for the active preservation of their region's culture through its toponymy. They typically ensure the ongoing development of a geographical names data base and associated publications, for recording and disseminating authoritative hard-copy and digital toponymic data. This data may be disseminated in a wide variety of formats, including hard-copy topographic maps as well as digital formats such as geographic information systems and Google Maps.
In 2002, the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names acknowledged that while common, the practice of naming geographical places after living persons could be problematic. As such, the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names recommends that it be avoided and that national authorities should set their own guidelines as to the time required after a person's death for the use of a commemorative name.
In the same vein, authors Pinchevski and Torgovnik considers the naming of streets as a political act in which holders of the legitimate monopoly to name aspire to engrave their ideological views in the social space. Similarly, the revisionist practice of renaming streets, as both the celebration of triumph and the repudiation of the old regime is another issue of toponymy. Also, in the context of Slavic nationalism, the name of Saint Petersburg was changed to the more Slavic sounding Petrograd from 1914 to 1924, then to Leningrad following the death of Vladimir Lenin and back to Saint-Peterburg in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. After 1830, in the wake of the Greek War of Independence and the establishment of an independent Greek state, Turkish, Slavic and Italian place names were Hellenized, as an effort of "toponymic cleansing". This nationalization of place names can also manifest itself in a postcolonial context.
Frictions sometimes arise between countries because of toponymy, as illustrated by the Macedonia naming dispute in which Greece has claimed the name Macedonia, as well as the Persian Gulf naming dispute. Over the years, it has also been noted that a map producer used the name Persian Gulf in a 1977 map of Iran while retaining the fictitious term "Arabian Gulf" in another 1977 map focusing on the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, underlying the occasional spilling of place names issues into the economic sphere.