The United States Board on Geographic Names (BGN) is a federal body operating under the United States Secretary of the Interior. The purpose of the board is to establish and maintain uniform usage of geographic names throughout the federal government of the United States.
On January 8, 1890, T.C. Mendenhall, superintendent of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey Office, wrote to 10 noted geographers "to suggest the organization of a Board made up of representatives from the different Government services interested, to which may be referred any disputed question of geographical orthography." President Benjamin Harrison signed Executive Order 28 on September 4, 1890, establishing the United States Board on Geographic Names. "To this Board shall be referred all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. The decisions of the Board are to be accepted [by federal departments] as the standard authority for such matters." The Board was given authority to resolve all unsettled questions concerning geographic names. Decisions of the Board were accepted as binding by all departments and agencies of the federal government.
The Board has developed principles, policies, and procedures governing the use of domestic and foreign geographic names. It also deals with the names of geographical features underseas and in Antarctica.
Although its official purpose is to resolve name problems and new name proposals for the federal government, the Board also plays a similar role for the general public. Any person or organization, public or private, may make inquiries or request the Board to render formal decisions on proposed new names, proposed name changes, or names that are in conflict. Generally, the BGN defers federal name use to comply with local usage. There are a few exceptions. For example, in rare cases where a locally used name is very offensive, the BGN may decide against adoption of the local name for federal use.
In federal mapping and names collection efforts, there is often a phase lag where a delay occurs in adoption of a locally used name. Sometimes the delay is several decades. Volunteers in the Earth Science Corps are used to assist the U.S. Geological Survey in collecting names of geographic features.
The Geographic Names Information System, developed by the BGN in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey, includes topographic map names and bibliographic references. The names of books and historic maps which confirm the feature or place name are cited. Variant names, alternatives to official federal names for a feature, are also recorded.
The BGN has members from six federal departments as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Government Publishing Office, the Library of Congress, and the U.S. Postal Service. The BGN rules on hundreds of naming decisions annually and stores over two million geographical records in its databases at geonames.usgs.gov. State and local governments, and private mapping organizations usually follow the BGN's decisions.
The BGN has an executive committee and two permanent committees with full authority: the 10 to 15-member Domestic Names Committee (DNC) and the 8 to 10-member Foreign Names Committee (FNC). Both comprise government employees only. Each maintains its own database.
The BGN does not create a place name, the BGN responds to proposals for names from federal agencies; state, local, and tribal governments; and the public. The BGN does not translate terms, but instead accurately uses foreign names in the Roman alphabet. For non-Roman languages, the BGN uses transliteration systems or creates them for less well-known languages.
The BGN currently publishes names on its website. In the past, the BGN issued its decisions in various publications under different titles at different intervals with various information included. In 1933, the BGN published a significant consolidated report of all decisions from 1890-1932 in its Sixth Report of the United States Geographic Board 1890-1932. For many years, the BGN published a quarterly report under the title Decisions on Geographic Names.
The BGN was established in 1890 as the "Board on Geographical Names" and has undergone several name changes. In 1934, it was transferred to the Department of the Interior. The 1969 BGN publication Decisions on Geographic Names in the United States stated the agency's chief purpose as:
[Names are] submitted for decisions to the Board on Geographical names by individuals, private organizations, or government agencies. It is the Board's responsibility to render formal decisions on new names, proposed changes in names, and names which are in conflict. [The decisions] define the spellings and applications of the names for use on maps and other publications of Federal agencies
In 1963, the Advisory Committee on Undersea Features (ACUF) was started for a standardization of names of undersea features.