Congratulations, Here's Your Mountain! Ever wonder how some places got their names? So did NPR's Robert Krulwich.
NPR logo

Congratulations, Here's Your Mountain!

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Congratulations, Here's Your Mountain!

Congratulations, Here's Your Mountain!

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


So folks, sometimes things happen, guests fall out, and when they do, this is what happens.

(Soundbite of music)

MATT MARTINEZ: When you're doing a live radio show like the Bryant Park Project, sometimes things go wrong. Guests sleep through their alarms, they get stuck in traffic, and sometimes, they get better offers. And when they do, the BPP is ready with a piece by NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich.

(Soundbite of telephone ring)

CAITLIN KENNEY: (Shouting) Get me Krulwich!

MARTINEZ: We call it Emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of theme song "The A Team")

WIN ROSENFELD: But Mr. Martinez, you said to only use the Emergency Krulwich in an emergency.

MARTINEZ: Damn it, man, this is an emergency! Control room, deploy Emergency Krulwich.

(Soundbite of theme song "The A Team")

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 INVA SILLIAF (Ph) (State University of New York): Yes.

KRULWICH: But, says Professor Inva Silliaf, an expert on place names at the State University of New York, that is not the case for Geneva, Oregon.

Prof. SILLIAF: That was named for Geneva Monacal, (ph), who was the first postmistress of the community.

KRULWICH: So Geneva, Oregon, is named after a civil servant, not after a town in Switzerland?

Prof. SILLIAF: Exactly. No.

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

Prof. SILLIAF: A guy whose last name was Parris with two Rs.

KRULWICH: And who was he?

Prof. SILLIAF: He was the first postmaster of that community. Yes.

KRULWICH: Again, the postmaster.

Prof. SILLIAF: Again.

KRULWICH: What happened, says Professor Silliaf, 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. SILLIAF: And then the town would change its name to the name of the post office, because that was usually easier to do than was changing the name of the post office to the name of the town.

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

Prof. SILLIAF: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

KRULWICH: It got so crazy that Remlap - 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 century, because this is sweeter. You have a mountain named after you, do you not?

Mr. ROGER PAYNE (Former Executive Secretary, Board on Geographic Names, U.S. Department of the Interior): 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 with the Board of Geographic Names of which I presided.

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: Well, yes, 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 Randall 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's 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 - folks, it's a family mountain range - four very large underwater mountains in the Indian Ocean called seamounts...

Prof. SILLIAF: That are named the Randall Sea Mount Group.

KRULWICH: Wow, that's quite an honor, don't you think?

Prof. SILLIAF: Do you know where these are? They are under the water. They're west of the Marshall Islands, so they're like in the middle of nowhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SILLIAF: 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's got to be either covered by an ocean or, this is where Mount Payne is, in Antarctica.

Prof. SILLIAF: Consider that it's in Antarctica.

KRULWICH: Well, you sound snippy about it. What's wrong with Antarctica? It's a continent?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SILLIAF: Oh, well, OK.

KRULWICH: Well, 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 of - here's their 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 no court, says Robert 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 Sholobovich (ph), then it will have two names, Payne for us and Sholobovich for them.

Mr. PAYNE: That's correct.

KRULWICH: Still, you know, you are one of our great geographers. Do you want to share your mountain 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's about to change the name for 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.


And that was NPR's esteemed science correspondent, Robert Krulwich, which - he helps us out in a pinch, even when he doesn't know he's helping us out. He's that kind of beneficent guy. The thing with place names that always annoys me is the U.S. tendency to take foreign names, you know, Berlin, Lima, Peru, becomes Lima, Ohio, and Berlin - you know, they always have to screw up the pronunciation.

MARTIN: It's true. Moscow, Idaho. That's how we like to do it. Coming up, a conversation with Celia Duggar, the New York Times reporter covering the Zimbabwe crisis from South Africa. Also, Japanese game shows, they're big hits on YouTube. Starting tonight, ABC will try to capitalize on their Internet success. This is the BPP from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.