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How place names are recorded

Knowing how place names are recorded will help you navigate through place searches.

There is a genealogical standard whereby places are recorded in four parts - locality, county, state, country, but about the only country where this works is the USA where counties are repositories for registration of the sort of information genealogists are looking for. Convention (which I do not use) requires that all three commas are always used, so that Jamaica would appear as ",,,Jamaica". The following chart lists several countries for comparison (italics = if required):

4th level 3rd level 2nd level country
  locality locality, town or city county/state/province country*
  suburb city county/state/province country*
  city "greater city" county/state/province country*
USA locality/city/town county state country
* "UK" is not used - England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Channel Islands are used

In many countries major cities are both the name of a municipal zone and the name of the wider urban area - what in some countries is referred to as Greater [City] as in Greater London. So suburbs and municipalities within such major cities are generally referred to as suburb, city, state, country (Eg Bungalow, Cairns, QLD, Australia). And just to complicate matters: In the UK major munciplaities are, in recent times, the equivalent of counties, so "Greater London" is separate from Middlesex. So the basic rule is place levels vary according to country but follow the basic rule of proceeding down through the levels of government/jurisdiction/geography to localities.

All this might seem unnecessarily pedantic but when you come to searching for places you will understand why consistency is important.

The database counts backwards. If there is only one entry, it is assumed to be a country. So if a source says that Joe Bloggs was born in Glen Coe (with no indication whether this is Canada, Scotland, South Africa or the USA), "Glen Coe" becomes a country unless commas are inserted "Glen Coe,,,".

earthThere is a code ("the Chapman code") of abbreviations for countries and provinces/states used by genealogists. See Wirksworth Parish Records - Chapman County Codes or RootsWeb: Country Abbreviations and Characters. I have chosen to spell most place names out in full, first, because the Chapman standards and usage are not consistent, and second, for the sake of the general reader (and myself!) not being required to know what a code means. So I have avoided the use of abbreviations except for 'USA' and the states of Australia, Canada and the USA.

England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Channel Islands are countries and are not shown as the United Kingdom. This is common practice in genealogy.

In the interests of making it easier to look up places in Google Maps, places are generally given in their modern context - see somments below. This gets a little tricky - with changes of administrative boundaries, a place can end up in a different shire/county location but it is still the same place! Some general strategies in dealing with place names:

  • are left as the inherited data describes them if I am unable to decipher what is intended by that contributor;
  • are given in their modern context. I have tried to identify such situations and added a reference note to acknowledge the historical situation. Examples:
    • Normandy is listed as in France, but there are times in its history (especially our family tree history) when Normandy was an independent dukedom and several Kings of England were also Dukes of Normandy;
    • Northern Ireland locations were included in Ireland prior to 1927 but are listed as Northern Ireland regardless of the date;
    • some of the early kings in England are listed as just that, "in England", because they were not kings "of England" - "England" not being in use much at the time, certainly as a state or nation;
    • changes in administrative boundaries and names, especially in the UK and South Africa;
    • nevertheless, you may find the same location in two different contexts (state or country) because of boundary/name changes over time;
    • sometimes streets and their numbering change over time - they may be in their modern context or a note is added to indicate that, say, 82 is the same as 104 some time later - nevertheless the map reference will be the same.