Ramblings about place names, region categories, and languages - Warning: This may be pointless!

+12 votes

There have been several very long (and I admit my guilt in contributing to the extreme length) G2G topics in the last few days that all relate to this topic.  I am referring to those on the organization of region categories and those on languages.

I am very much in the middle of these issues because I work on a lot of profiles of Germans who migrated to other countries in the 1930's and 1940's to escape the Holocaust, as well as a good number of Germans who migrated as early as the mid-1800's.  I am also VERY geographically challenged - having grown up in New York (the city), I could be the poster child for that iconic magazine cover with the map of the world that had New York at center, the Hudson River and Asia beyond it to the left, the Atlantic Ocean and Europe beyond it to the east.

Now I am struggling to cope with not only names of places in Germany and surrounding countries, but also what countries those places were in at whatever time the people were born, married, moved from 1 place to another, and died - they may never have moved, yet lived in a variety of different countries during their lives!!!

Add to that the burden of trying to deal with foreign languages that I don't speak and I am an order of magnitude beyond not being able to cope, yet this is still not the end of it - now throw in the disorganized mess in the categoroes and I'm totally out of it.

Resigned to doing the best I can with the German place names and categories without any expection that what I'm doing is correct, I figured that I could do a better job for all the people who came to the United States - especially because almost all of them started in New York, which I know very well.  Boy, was I ever wrong about that!!!  The New York categories are all messed up and this time I'm absolutely positive of it - in Germany, all I knew was that my head was spinning trying to make sense of it, but here I know what places there are and how they are organized, both on a map and politically.

New York City is subdivided into 5 boroughs named The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.  Each of these is a county in its own right - Bronx County, Kings County, New York County, Queens County, and Richmond, respectively.  For some strange reason, the correct term is "the Bronx" and not just plain "Bronx" - it is the only borough referred to this way. 

There is a category for New York (the state).  In there, (among others) are categories:

  • Bronx County, New York
    • The Bronx, New York
  • Kings County, New York
    • Brooklyn, New York
  • New York County, New York
    • Manhattan, New York
  • New York, New York
    • Bronx County, New York
    • Brooklyn, New York
    • Kings County, New York
    • Manhattan, New York
    • New York County, New York
    • Queens County, New York
    • Queens, New York
    • Richmond County, New York
    • Staten Island, New York
    • The Bronx, New York
  • Queens County, New York
    • Fort Totten, New York
    • Jericho, New York
    • Middle Village, New York
    • Queens, New York
  • Richmond County, New York
    • Middletown, New York
    • Staten Island, New York

The 5 top level County categories are fine - the term "New York" is well accepted as referring to the state unless a modifier (like "city" or "county" is appended to it).  The New York, New York category should probably be named New York City, New York and I'm not sure if it really belongs at the same level as the 5 counties - then again, I'm not sure if it belongs above or below them - after all, cities are usually in counties, but in this case, the 5 counties happen to all be in the 1 city.  It looks like the stucture addresses this by including the counties, as well as all the boroughs as subcategories of "New York, New York" (which should probably be named "New York City, New York").  As an aside, to a New Yorker, when you say "New York" and don't mean the state, the term is taken to mean specifically the borough of Manhattan, as opposed to the entire city.

The borough names as subcategories of the 5 county names are also fine, except that the "New York" portion of them should probably be "New York City".  The subcategories of Queens County and Richmond County, other than the ones for the boroughs of Queens and Staten Island, absolutely do not belong there!  Except for Jericho, New York (which is a community that straddles the border of 2 towns, both oth which are totally contained within Nassau County and not even close to Nassau/Queens border), the rest of them are all communities (or neighborhoods or perhaps some other term) in the borough and should be subcategories of their respective boroughs.

I see that I've gone so far on this tangent that I have not expounded at all on the topic of languages, but I've ranted enough for now and will leave that for another post, but I'm not going to change the topic - think of this as my first installment on the topic, please!

in Policy and Style by Gaile Connolly G2G6 Pilot (872k points)
retagged by Keith Hathaway

3 Answers

+4 votes

This is the first description of how New York categories should be set up that I have seen.  And it makes sense.

Not being familiar with the New York City area I gave up trying to use those categories.

I suggest you add a diagram of category structure that should be used. - to compare to what is.

Look carefully at how many profiles would need to be changed and propose here G2G that it be done.  Based on what you have so far I'm confidant that most everyone will be in agreement.

Of couse you will get stuck doing a lot, but others will help.
by Philip Smith G2G6 Pilot (281k points)
No problem about the amount of work, Philip - I've gotten stuck so many times that I feel like one of those voodoo dolls!

There is a problem about the organization plan, though - I can't believe you said I described how they should be set up when I don't really know that at all!

I only know that New York City does not fit the classic of State -> County -> City -> lower level municipality - it's backwards - New York City consists of 5 counties.  People who live there don't ever think of counties as anything meaningful - they just think of the 5 boroughs.  Of course, each borough is identical to a county and some of them even have the same names as their counties,  I have no clue why they don't just call them counties instead of boroughs to eliminate some of the confusion, but I bet if you went out on the street and asked people there, they would tell you they don't live in a county - they live in a city or they live in a borough, and counties are rural kinds of things that have nothing to do with them.

I lived there from birth to age 25, then lived on Long Island. which is a suburb of New York City, for the next 23 years.  Each borough has lots of what are called "neighborhoods" by the folks who live there.  I lived in Flatbush, which is a neighborhood in Brooklyn.  Other neighborhoods in Brooklyn include Brighton Beach, Coney Island, Bensonhurst, Borough Park, Bay Ridge, East New York, Sheepshead Bay, and - yes - Fort Totten, although I believe it was still a military base while I lived there ... and let's not forget Bedford Stuyvesant, as well.  When I was growing up, "downtown" meant downtown Brooklyn, the part closest to Manhattan, where all the borough offices and major department stores were located, while "the city" meant "New York City" which was also the same thing as Manhattan - we really didn't use the word Manhattan much - it was known as "the city".  To me, "New York" could mean the state, the entire city, or the borough of Manhattan, but I never even heard of a county named New York.  Also, I always thought that Staten Island had 2 names - Staten Island or Richmond, but was oblivious to the notion that Richmond was the name of a county.

I think that, if I were planning the category structure, I would do away with either the counties or the boroughs - if you keep the county names, then indicate on the county page that the county is also the borough of whatever or vice versa if you keep the boroughs as categories.  I would probably also get rid of New York City as a category, including a statement on the county or borough pages that this is 1 of 5 boroughs that comprise New york City.  I'm not sure that eliminating New York City would be the right thing to do, though, only because people would say "How can you have possibly forgotten to include New York City?".

By the way, here's another monkey wrench to throw into the mess -  as the post office addresses go, people in 3 of the 5 boroughs live in BoroughName, New York (meaning the state).  People in Manhattan live in New York, New York (meaning city, state) and people in Queens live in NeighborhoodName, New York (meaning the state).
+5 votes

Thanks, Gaile, for this analysis of New York City (and viicinity) geographic nomenclature. Rambling thoughts like these deserve to be encouraged!

Sadly, I think the situation is even more complicated than what you describe. For the more than 2-1/2 centuries before the five counties were consolidated to form New York City, there were discrete named villages, towns, and cities in some of those counties, and people lived and died in those places. For example, I've worked on profiles for people who had life events in the 1600s in Bushwick, often identifed as Bushwick, Kings County.  Bushwick was one of  six distinct towns in what is now Brooklyn and it is still recognized as a section of the borough of Brooklyn. It would be inaccurate to say that 17th-century residents of Bushwick lived in "Brooklyn" (that was a separate place) or "New York City" or even the historical "New Amsterdam" (that name seems to have referred to Manhattan). For purposes of geolocation of these profiles, I think Bushwick, Kings County would be more useful than something like "Brooklyn," but I don't know if it's feasible with WikiTree's current technology. For purposes of categorization, I think Bushwick defines a very meaningful category that would help researchers find families that lived in that community (not in "Brooklyn") in centuries past.

by Ellen Smith G2G Astronaut (1.2m points)

You are oh-so-right, Ellen about the added complication of geographic and political changes over time - I didn't even think of addressing that at all!!!  I only wrote about what I know which started in the 1940's.

Your use of Bushwick to illustrate your point is a good one and I don't mean to take away from it, but there is one thing about it that doesn't ring true for me.  I dont think it's a question between a category of Bushwick, Kings County vs Brooklyn.  Bushwick is a part of Brooklyn so it would still be a subcategory of Brooklyn.  The question is one of correctness for the time, however - was it Bushwick, Kings County or Bushwick, Brooklyn? - and from what you said about Brooklyn not existing, combined with WikiTree policy of naming places as they were at the time we're talking about them, it sounds like there used to be a Bushwick, Kings County but there now is a Bushwick, Brooklyn.


PS  In case anyone is interested, in my opinion those Indians who got 24 beads in exchange for Manhattan got the better part of the deal.  I usually refer to that place as The Rotten Apple.


We certainly can use a category of Bushwick and the other towns.

I would think they could be a sub category of Brooklyn - with a note on the category page - almost a copy of your note

We have Dakota Territory for example as a sub category of Dakota , so this is not a new concept.


I just had a sudden thought - how about the following category names at the county level (the immediate subcategory of the state of New York):

  • Manhattan (New York County), New York City, New York
  • Brooklyn (Kings County), New York City, New York
  • The Bronx (Bronx County), New York City, New York
  • Queens (Queens County), New York City, New York
  • Staten Island (Richmond County), New York city, New York

If you prefer, you could reverse that and put the county names first with "Borough of X" in the parentheses.

Note that this still leaves New York City as not having a category of its own - I don't know if you want to do that.

During the 1600s, Bushwick and Brooklyn were separate towns. According to the Wikipedia article I linked to, there were six towns in what is now Brooklyn. Modern (anglicized) spellings are:

  • Gravesend
  • Brooklyn
  • Flatlands
  • Flatbush
  • New Utrecht
  • Bushwick
Hmmph!  ... and, to me, all those (except Brooklyn itself) are names of what I called "neighborhoods" in the Brooklyn that I know.  I do seem to remember learning that there was Dutch influence and the name used to be spelled something like Breuklyn, although that may not be exactly correct.  (I was never very interested in history - if it wasn't math or science, I wanted no part of it when I was in school).

I noticed that the categories include (I think 2 for the same place) the Dutch Reformed Church.  That was 2 blocks from the apartment house I lived in and also right across the street (on Flatbush Avenue) from Erasmus Hall High School (where I went).  My friends and I always used to sit on the steps of the church before or after shcool or, sometimes on a Saturday, while waiting for the movie theater across the other street (Church Avenue) at that intersection to open its doors.  I never knew it was some kind of historically significant place.
Great work and thinking, Gaile.

Regarding names in different time periods. Didn't I read somewhere that the place name fields should be used for the name as it was at the time of the event and categories used for the place name as it is currently known?

Second, would people really think of Brooklyn as part of New York City? That doesn't seem accurate to me.

Thank you for the kind words - I shall strive to be deserving of them.

About the names in different periods - I was unaware of that, as I am unaware of a whole lot of things around here.  I think I need to include that idea with the 2nd installment of my "rant" - where I will get on my soapbox about the language problems we are facing.  After all, different ways of naming (or organizaing) the same places based on different time periods is equivalent to using a place name in different languages (i.e., Spain or Espana, Germany or Deutschland, etc.)

Perhaps a poll should be taken to see how different people think of Brooklyn.  I know that when someone asks where I was born, my answer is New York ... if asked where in New York, my answer is "the city" or "New York City" ... if asked what part of the city, my answer is "Brooklyn" and nobody has ever expressed any surprise or questioned that in any way.
The help pages say to use their convention, not ours, when filling out place names (and some other fields, too).

This has led to concern about not being able to find a place given the difference in its name over time.

I'm not sure if using Categories to identify the current name of a place was ever codified. I.e., I don't think it's in the help text.

Philip Smith, am I right, or completely off?
One other thing, Gaile, I know how frustrated you have been about the various help pages and what appears to you as contradictions or is confusing.

You're not alone.

I would encourage you and others who share your concern to note where those inconsistencies exist, so that they can be handled one at a time.

There used to be a Help Page Committee; technically it still exists; I just don't know how active it is.  Not long ago, I requested to be involved in it, and never received a response from its leader. Not sure you want to take it on, given your other really amazing project (Holocaust), but I encourage you to make suggestions.

Yes, Wikitree practice is that names should be local.   Obviously that leads to difficulties.  In general it seems to work best to have the older name as a sub category of the new name.  In some cases this is easy - the town name changed, we know the date and have a source.  Using the old name when it was correct and the new name when it is correct both linked to categories seems to work.

Again - simple case - census records with one name in 1850, different name but same place in 1880 - I use two category names with the old name as a sub cat and show the name change information, with a source, on the category pages.

I have not tried to address the multiple language part of this - English is difficult enough for me.
Philip, you need to find/clone a Johann Philipp Schmidt and a Jean Philippe Forgeron etc to help with other-language categorization.
Now that we've switched to parallel category structures in other languages, English speakers are free to work on categories in English only. Now we just add links between equivalent categories in different languages, where they exist.

I'm almost afraid to suggest this because it will rock the boat by a tidal wave, but a sudden thought just occurred to me and I'm sharing it with y'all, completely raw without any consideration of whether or not it has any merit whatsoever.

Lianne's comment about having switched to parallel category structures in other languages was the stimulus for this.  How about if we have parallel category structures for time periods?

For an example, I will use hypothetical data, since I don't know the real info - please do not take the following data as correct, factual, or any other kind of representation of reality!!!

Suppose that Brooklyn (the borough of New York City which is synonymous with King County) has included a neighborhood named Bushwick since 1700, but before that Brooklyn and Bushwick were both independent parts of Kings County.  Here's how the categories would be structured:

New York      ~note - this is the state level, not the city
     Kings County
               Bushwick (post-1700)
          Bushwick (1492 -1700)

When looking at a hierarchical tree of the categories, this is going to look like a colossal nightmare but if you pick a time period and only look at the parts of the structure relevant to it then I think it would appear well organized.

I immediately see a problem, though - if Bushwick secedes from New York in 2050 and becomes a full fledged state in its own right, then "Bushwick (post-1700)" would have to be changed to "Bushwick (1700-2050) and a new category on the state level would need to be created for "Bushwick (post 2050)".  The way categories work, with no way to change their names, would create a major headache to create new category names and move all the profiles from the old names to the new ones.

The category system (on a technical level - I've switched hats now and am talking about database architecture) could be changed to assign a unique ID number to categories when they are created.  If that were done then it would be possible to change the displayed name of a category without impacting anything else at all.  This would take a non-trivial programming effort to accomplish and the best way to implement it would entail taking WikiTree offline for possibly as long as a half hour while the change is propagated to already existing records.  Despite the major an impact represented in the programming time and drastic action of taking the site down for an interval, my opinion is that this is something well worth doing, no matter what else we do or don't do about category structuring.  It would permit the same functionality for categories as we now have for people - category names would work like first names do and we could even merge categories.


+3 votes
I see this as no different than other big cities. Just because a city crosses over different counties makes no difference. Tge strucrure should still follow our state, county, borough, city, or township etc..
by Terri Rick G2G6 Mach 3 (39.6k points)
Terri, this is a truly unique situation and nothing like any other city in the world that I know of.  In the hierarchy you listed, a city is a subcategory of a county and you're saying that if the city straddles 2 county lines then it can be a subcategory of both counties.

In this case, New York City does not "cross over" different counties - it is not a part of any of the 5 counties we are talking about, but is, instead, the entirety of each of the 5 counties is a part of New York City.  On top of that, nobody every thinks of New York City as consisting of these 5 counties - instead, New York City is defined as consisting of 5 boroughs and, almost as an afterthought, each borough, in its entirety, just happens to be synonymous with a single county of New York (the state).

If you still think this can fit into the same structure as whichever other big cities you are thinking of, please explain exactly how you see the categories of New York City, the 5 boroughs, and the 5 counties being structured.  It would be wonderful if this can become a non-problem.

The structure of New York City is unique...except for London perhaps?

We have a similar set of problems here too, albeit for different reasons. In the case of London the manner in which it is governed has exacerbated the issues relating to locality and settlement.

London was a city established by the Romans (Londinium) [at least New York on has to go back as far as New Amsterdam!]. The City of London, being of Roman origin, is actually a very small area - known collquially as 'The square mile'. In the UK a city is only given that status by Royal Charter, otherwise a big town is just that, a big town!

After the withdrawal of the legions in about 410AD/CE, Londinium was abandoned with new incoming settlers doing so outside of its precincts. However, in time the old city was repopulated and grew to be a singularly and one of the chief towns and ports in England. As the population outgrew the small city and the port expanded so did the built area. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, King Edward the Confessor had built his new great church a few miles to the west. As a great and Royal church it was given the title Minster, thus Westminster began to grow.

After the Norman Conquest, William I built a Royal Palace in the City of London - The Tower of London, but most subsequent monarchs developed Westminster and the area between. Today, Buckingham Palace, Whitehall (including Downing Street), the Houses of Parliament (correctly named the Palace of Westminster) are all in the City of Westminster.

Theoretically both the City of London and Westminster were situated in the County of Middlesex; however, the City of London was in a special category reserved for a number of Cities in England whereby from an early date they were created as Counties in their own right (Southampton, Bristol and others were also in this category). This meant that they were outside of the writ of the King's Officer (The Shire Reeve, or Sheriff) for the county in which they were nominally situated .

The surrounding countryside in Middlesex, and across the River Thames in the County of Surrey, small villages became more populous as the magnates of the kingdom set up homes close to the King's court at Westminster, bringing great numbers of people and trade in their wake.

By 1800 the built environment around London was enormous. The population was swelling fast and new streets and estates were being thrown up quickly to accomodate the incoming migration from the countryside. London had become the largest urban area in the world. Places which had hitherto been villages now became part of the sprawl.

During the nineteenth century the expansion continued with the urban area now being classified as ' the Metropolitan Area' going way beyond the one million population mark - the first place in the world to do so. New public authorities were set up to manage this new dynamic place - the Metropolitan Board of Works was probably chief amongst these, building sewerage systems and giving its name to the world's first underground railway, what is now the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground. The new Police service was established in 1829, the Metropolitan Police. The thing is that these authorities operated within the boundaries of the County of Middlesex, but were not actually of that county.

In 1889 the governance of this urban sprawl, and indeed of most of the rest of the country, was rationalized. The County of London was established for the first time, which was to be governed (at least with authority over a range of matters such as roads and superstructure) by a County Council. The new London County Council was not, in any way, responsible for what went on within the precincts of the City of London wihich retained its own historical structure of governance headed by the Lord Mayor of London.

Over the next ten years the structures evolved and the County was divided into Metropolitan Boroughs who took over the social governance in their locality from the parish vestries and County Justices, which had governed since the Middle Ages. These boroughs were formed from villages and towns that had previously been in the ancient counites of Middlesex and Surrey and so the county now straddled the Thames.

Until the Second World War, the County of London population grew and the urban sprawl spread with the extensions of the Underground system. The planners who came together to rethink the built environment in 1944, following the recent physical alterations provided courtesy of the Wermacht and Luftwaffe, the idea of a Greater London was developed.

It took until 1963 for the political will to carry out some of these reforms but under the Greater London Act of that year, to come into force on 1st April 1965, a new larger county was formed called Greater London. This absorbed almost all of the remsinder of the historic county of Middlesex, which ceased to exist, much of the northern eastern parts of the county of Surrey, parts of Buckinghamshire and of Essex. The new London Boroughs were formed from bringing together groups of two or three Metropolitan Boroughs from within the old LCC  area, and Boroughs and Urban Districts from the new expanded areas for Greater London. There were amongst these at least two County Boroughs (which had County status in their own right) that went on to merge with neighbouring Urban Districts to form London Boroughs.

Each London Borough (like each of the Metropolitan Boroughs and County Boroughs) was established with a council and a Mayor. There were now 32 London Boroughs, but the City of London was still not one of them, although the City of Westminster was and remains the London Borough of the City of Westminster.

Since then the world has changed again. The old GLC was abolished and replaced by a Mayor covering the whole County and a new Greater London Authority formed to keep the Mayor in check. However, it is important to realise that the City of London retains its' Lord Mayor and Common Council quite separately and over which the Mayor of London and the GLA have little or no authority; they also still have a separate Police Force - The City of London Police are quite separate from their colleagues headquartered at New Scotland Yard.

It is strange to recount that whereas the history of the city of London is measured in millenia, most of the changes have occurred in my lifetime. My first school was operated by the London County Council, we then moved out of the county to the county borough of Croydon in what had traditionally been the county of Surrey, and so I attended a school operated by that county borough, until in 1965 it became a London Borough. Most of the 32 Boroughs are centred upon what were relatively independent market towns  who happened to be in close proximity to London. They have spearate histories and some even have unique dialects.

I empathise with your conundrums in New York City, but I am unconvinced that they are unique!

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