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We're not exactly sure how in this wide universe Battlestar Galactica got its name, but we've got a story now from NPR's Robert Krulwich about naming things a little closer to home.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Let's start with Geneva, Oregon. Now, you'd think a town named Geneva would have gotten the name from Geneva, Switzerland. Right?

Professor IRINA VASILIEV (State University of New York): Yes.

KRULWICH: But as Professor Irina Vasiliev, an expert on state names at the State University of New York, that is not the case for Geneva, Oregon.

Prof. VASILIEV: That was named for Geneva Monical, who was the first postmistress of the community.

KRULWICH: So Geneva, Oregon is named after a civil servant, not after a town...

Prof. VASILIEV: Exactly.

KRULWICH: ...in Switzerland.

Prof. VASILIEV: No.

KRULWICH: Okay, here's the same state. Again, Oregon, this time Paris. You say that Paris, Oregon is not named for Paris, France but for a guy who...

Prof. VASILIEV: The guy whose last name was Paris with two R's.

KRULWICH: Ah. Well, who was he?

Prof. VASILIEV: And he was first postmaster of that community. Yes. Yes.

KRULWICH: Again the postmaster.

Prof. VASILIEV: Again.

KRULWICH: What happens, say Professor Vasiliev, is that 150 years ago, the federal government let postmasters choose the name for the town's first post office. And not infrequently, if the town was very, very new, they thought, well, how about naming it after - me?

Prof. VASILIEV: And then the town would change its name to the name of the post office, because that was usually easier to do than changing the name of the post office to the name of the town.

KRULWICH: So that had the affect of elevating postal workers into place names. All over America, people who happened to be...

Prof. VASILIEV: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.

KRULWICH: It got so crazy that Remlap, Alabama - Remlap spelled backwards is Palmer. And James Palmer was the first postmaster of that town. So the town is the postmaster's name spelled backwards. So in the 19th century, a bunch of federal workers, ordinary postmasters, as a kind of fringe benefit, got, in effect, to name their own towns. That's sweet.

But now let's jump forward to the 21st, because this is sweeter.

You have a mountain named after you, do you not?

Mr. ROGER PAYNE (Former Executive Secretary, U.S. Board on Geographic Names): Well, I'm honored to say that I do.

KRULWICH: The honoree in this case is Roger Payne, who retired this year after 33 years' service in the Interior Department. He served as executive secretary of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. And he got his mountain - I guess it was at a retirement party?

Mr. PAYNE: I did, as a matter of fact. Actually, it was the last meeting of the Board on Geographic Names at which I presided.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Roger has never been to this mountain.

You didn't climb it, discover it, unveil it, stick a flag in it, or anything yourself?

Mr. PAYNE: No.

KRULWICH: Well, weren't you curious as to where it was?

Mr. PAYNE: Ah, yes. Well, they actually gave me a picture and a map of it.

KRULWICH: And it's kind of big.

Mr. PAYNE: It's just under 11,000 feet.

KRULWICH: And it's close to two other mountains, right?

Mr. PAYNE: It's associated with Mount Randal and Mount Burrill.

KRULWICH: Mount Randall, I discovered is named for Richard R. Randall. Mount Burrill for Meredith Burrill. And as it happens, both those men had also been executive secretaries of the Board on Geographic Names.

They both had your job before you?

Mr. PAYNE: Yes.

KRULWICH: And they have mountains now, just like you? And they're next to you.

Mr. PAYNE: Yes.

KRULWICH: It's like an office mountain range.

Mr. PAYNE: You might put it that way.

KRULWICH: And what's more, Richard Randall - who is already Mount Randall - his family, his dad and his two brothers, they also did map work for the government. And on retirement, they all got - well, it's a family mountain range - four very large underwater mountains in the Indian Ocean called Seamounts.

Prof. VASILIEV: That are named at the Randall Seamount Group.

KRULWICH: Wow! That's quite an honor, when you think about it.

Prof. VASILIEV: Do you know where these are?

KRULWICH: Do you know?

Prof. VASILIEV: They're under the water. They're west of the Marshal Islands. So they're like in the middle of nowhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. VASILIEV: So I don't know what kind of honor this is.

KRULWICH: The problem is that Congress does not allow any physical feature in the United States to be named for a living person. So if you want to put a live retiree's name on a mountain, then that mountain has got to be either covered by an ocean or - this is where Mount Payne is - in Antarctica.

Prof. VASILIEV: Consider that, it's in Antarctica.

KRULWICH: Well, you sound sniffy about it. What's wrong? Antarctica...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: ...is a continent.

Prof. VASILIEV: Oh, well. Okay.

KRULWICH: Of course, Antarctica and the oceans do not belong to the United States. And in 2003, an international oceanographic commission protested America's habit of putting names - and here's there list...

Unidentified Woman: Retiring U.S. agency, military service, or commercial personalities...

KRULWICH: On what they then called...

Unidentified Woman: Significant topographical entities.

KRULWICH: Which is just a fancy way of saying stop putting your names on the good stuff. There is no treaty and there is no court, says Roger Payne, to regulate offshore names.

Mr. PAYNE: In fact, there is no international body that makes binding decisions on geographical names.

KRULWICH: Ooh. So if next year the Russians, say, decide they want to call what we call Mount Roger Payne Mount Igor Shalabovitch, then it will have two names: Payne for us and Shalabovitch for them.

Mr. PAYNE: That's correct.

KRULWICH: Hmm. Still, you know, you are one of our great geographers. Do you want to share your mountain, I mean now that you've got your mountain?

Mr. PAYNE: Yeah. But you know, I suppose there are other things to worry about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Well, it turns out - and you can look this up - no other country thus far has proposed an alternate name for Mount Payne, or for Mount Randall, or for Mount Burrill. And no one is about to change the name of Geneva, Oregon. So the names have kind of stuck.

And the best part is that while kings and queens of course have always gotten their names on maps - Louis got Louisiana, Georgie got Georgia - now ordinary postmasters or government workers like Roger Payne, now it's their turn. They can be mountains.

Robert Krulwich, NPR News in New York.

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