‘You study what?’

Dr. Laura Kostanski, Project Director, Geonaming Solutions

‘You study what?

This would have to be the most common phrase an onomastician is greeted with in their pursuit of knowledge.  While someone in the medical sphere will be greeted with an ‘oooh, how wonderful’, and a law student will no doubt be told ‘you’ll go far’, the onomastics student encounters a questioning of their senses accompanied by a vague chortle/smirk/raising of the eyebrows, and a follow-up question of ‘what kind of job are you going to do with that?’.

A million options

After 12 years in this field I am pleased to report that the application of onomastic knowledge is as wide as the research domain allows.  As noted in the opening statements of this website, ‘it would be difficult to find any subject, particularly in the arts and social sciences, where name evidence is not relevant’. And just as name evidence is relevant to research subjects, so too it is relevant to the real-applied world beyond the academic walls.

I am grateful that having heard the question ‘you study what?’ countless times over the past twelve years has not discouraged me from my passion for toponymy.  Rather, the question has pushed me to deeply consider the study of names and how it can be applied not only for my own personal benefit of knowledge acquisition, but also for the greater good of the wider community. This has had two major benefits, the first of which is an appreciation of the study and application of onomastics from a variety of angles.  Secondly, when I meet new people and receive the inevitable question about my choice of career, I am now in possession of a finely-tuned set of stock standard responses.

Phase One- Historian/Linguist

In regards to the primary benefit- an understanding of onomastics from a variety of angles- I began my sojourn into the world of names when travelling home one night from a birthday party on the Murray River.  Having lived overseas for a few years previously, the toponyms which had once seemed familiar now appeared new and exotic to me, and I was intrigued to understand more about how Australia had inherited such culturally distinct names. Thus began my obsession. I wrote a short essay on the history of Victorian toponyms, which then blossomed into an Honours year thesis on the history of toponyms on the Murray River.

Phase Two- Geographer

When I first began the honours thesis research I approached it as a subject of historical interest- I delved into the record books, read the journal articles and ventured into the archives. However, it was when I travelled for a week along the length of the Murray River and began to meet with locals who lived in the towns I was studying, that I began to appreciate the far reaching impact that toponyms play in everyday lives. I began to hear stories about not only what the names meant traditionally to Indigenous and colonial communities, but also what the names meant in their contemporary contexts. The question intruiged me then, and has persisted ever since, on how people and communities interact with names at particular moments and over periods of time. The research lead me to explore for the first time the research domain of geography – which in turn spurred me on to a PhD investigating the restoration of Indigenous names.

Phase Three- Psychologist/Human Geographer

Under the supervision of Assoc. Prof. Ian Clark at the University of Ballarat, I researched the intentions of, and reactions to, government proposals to restore Indigenous names for what is now the Grampians (Gariwerd) National Park in Western Victoria. Similarly to the honours thesis, I headed into the project as a historian/geographer, but what I learnt along the way meant that I had to delve into the domains of psychology and philosophy.  Sitting at kitchen tables with people who were passionate about their local toponyms and their intrinsic value to personal and community identity, lead me to develop theories of toponymic attachment, identity and dependence.[1]

Phase Four- Toponymic & Addressing Policy Developer

The development of these theories granted me an opportunity to gain a position at the Office of Geographic Names Victoria, and also to be an Australian Delegate to the United Nations for the five-yearly Group of Experts on Geographic Names (UNGEGN) meeting and conference in New York.[2] The work with the OGN over five years involved me in many interesting aspects of applied toponymy- redeveloping the Guidelines for Geographic Names 2011[3] (through two years of consultation with 114 stakeholder groups); assisting councils with naming roads and parks; working with Indigenous communities to rename the Niggerheads to the Jaithmathangs; consulting the community on name changes necessitated by emergency service requirements; and eventually, gaining an appreciation of the rules of addressing through committee work revising the AS/NZS4819: Rural and Urban Addressing.[4]

Phase Five- Volunteered Geographic Information

Having worked in applied toponymy for five years I had an appreciation of end-user requirements for toponyms, particularly emergency and other services provision.  With this in mind I saw an opportunity for modern technology to be embraced to allow greater access for a wide range of users to relevant, reliable and regularly updated toponymic information.  Thus, I applied for and was exceptionally fortunate to receive a Churchill Fellowship to travel the world for six weeks and study the latest trends in government agencies utilizing online technologies to interact with local communities and gather toponymic information.[5] During this trip I met with a variety of eagerly-enthusiastic toponymists from a range of domains, all working to catalogue and understand the role of place names in society.

Phase Six – Consultant Toponymist

Prior to my Churchill trip at the start of 2012, I was privileged to meet with staff from CSIRO who are working to implement a new globally-scalable system of referencing geospatial information.  The primary reference foci are toponyms, gathered from disparate systems and databases, cross referenced and matched to deliver a harmonized model for accessing information relevant to places (such as statistics, demographics etc).[6]  The pilot study is focused in Indonesia and I am currently employed as the Research Manager and Gazetteer Expert for the project. I am working with the team to support the development of the harmonized model for the national geospatial information agency of Indonesia. Through this I also have an opportunity continue to work closely with various UNGEGN committees and colleagues.[7]

Next Steps

I now have my own consultancy company, Geonaming Solutions,[8] and provide a variety of services to government and private industries working on a range of toponymic and addressing projects.  In addition to the CSIRO work I am collaborating with two staff members with the New South Wales Land and Property Information Division to develop a new standard of addressing policies for the State.[9]

In my spare time I’m enjoying writing articles like this one, writing book reviews and journal articles, and am currently co-editing the volume Names: People, Places, Perceptions and Power with Dr Guy Puzey, University of Edinburgh, which is due for publication in 2013.

So, what do I study? And, what kind of job will I do with that?

As stated earlier, there were two major benefits of being consistently queried about my choice of onomastics as a serious academic pursuit.  The first I have described above- an accumulated knowledge and appreciation of onomastics from a variety of angles.  The second is a set of standard answers, which usually go something like this-

What do you do?

I name things


Yes, I name roads, mountains, rivers and schools. Well, I used to. Now, I develop policy on how they’re named.

Really? That many things get named on a regular basis?

Yes, over 5,000 new roads are created in the State of Victoria every year, and they all need names. And just imagine how many new places and roads are created around the world; and how many emergency services need to know about them; and how many names need to be identified by historians to make sure they’re relevant to the area; and how many languages there are which have different names for places; and how many countries there are each with their own systems and databases……..

And believe it or not, the responses I receive these days are overwhelmingly positive and lead to many fascinating conversations with friends and colleagues about their own nuanced understandings of onomastics! I have enjoyed the past 12 years in this domain and thoroughly appreciated everything I’ve learnt from colleagues. I look forward to reading on this website about your onomastic adventures over the years to come!

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