Vernacular geography: What’s in a name?

There has been a bit of media coverage around in the last couple of week about some research we’re supporting at Cardiff University. It’s called Peoples’ Place Names, and they’re studying what’s known as Vernacular Geography.

What I might think of as the East End of London, or Shirley in Southampton, might be completely different from the next person, or at least different in ways I don’t realise. And that can still be the case even when a place has official boundaries.

For people that live or work in these places, the boundaries are often a matter of strong and passionate opinion. Have you ever met someone who, upon selling their house, was adamant that they didn’t live in a particular part of town?


Our sense of place can sometimes divide opinion. Image from Tim Green aka atoach via Flikr

And if you’re feeling really brave, why not start a debate about the exact location of The Black Country in the West Midlands? A lesson we learnt last year when we started printing the area on our OS Landranger Maps!

But in all seriousness, collecting these informal, vernacular place names could be really important in helping us build better place name gazetteers. These are not only important tools for us as map makers but also for the other organisations that rely on them, like the emergency services when responding to an incident.

When a 999 call comes in, knowing that King George’s Park is locally know as King’s Park or even “The Rec” could save vital minutes.

Last week in the Western Mail, Chris Jones, professor of geographical information systems at Cardiff University’s School of Computer Science and Informatics, said the data would also be very useful for online searching.

Last year we put The Black Country on the map, but steered clear of defining it's boundaries.

Last year we put The Black Country on the map, but steered clear of defining it’s boundaries.

He said: “Our language about space tends to be rather vague – lots of the way we refer to the world around us is vague.

“The idea of the site is to get people to tell us what names they associate with a particular place they live and give us postcodes and point to it on a map.”

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3 Responses

  1. Pingback : Tweets that mention Ordnance Survey Blog » What’s in a name? -- Topsy.com

  2. Tony Kennick

    Flickr have done some interesting things using their huge store of photos that have both technical and human data about location. So by taking the geocoded points of all the photos tagged as being of a particular place you can create a shapefile that maps that place according to the opinions of all the photographers that have uploaded pictures.
    More about what and how at:
    This work should of course be transferable to other large data sets that have similar properties.
    But what I am wondering based on your requirements is if a similar sort of analysis could be used to generate a place name folksonomy by spotting common tags for clustered sets of photos (or whatever). Based on the idea that if 50 people all mark their photo of a place with the same label, that label probably has some meaning.

  3. Mark Pendlington

    @Tony – yes Ordnance Survey have indeed looked at such analysis with Cardiff University. I believe that this has been used to generate some of the suggestions that the Peoples’ Place Names website makes when you enter a postcode. I’ll check with Cardiff to see what they did and let you know. Thanks, Mark Pendlington, Research, Ordnance Survey.

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