The history of place names in the Arctic

The history behind the place names in Norwegian territories in polar regions spans almost back to the Viking Age, but most names have their origin in more recent times, times characterised by exploration, whaling and mapping. If you want to find the history of a specific place name, try searching the place names in Norwegian polar areas.

The history of Norwegian names in Svalbard begins with the first Norwegian expedition to map and explore the archipelago, in 1906. The expedition was financed by Prince Albert of Monaco and was led by Captain Gunnar Isachsen. “The Norwegian State-financed Spitsbergen Expeditions” eventually became established as a yearly event, through a combination of private financing and appropriations from Stortinget.

All of this mapping was a contributing factor when Norway was granted sovereignty over Svalbard in 1920. In 1925, “Spitsbergen Expeditions” was given responsibility for place names, and the task was incorporated into the remit of “Norges Svalbard- og ishavsundersøkelser” (NSIU; Norwegian Svalbard and Polar Sea Studies) when that institution was formally established in 1928.

In 1948 NSIU was also made responsible for mapping and place names in the Norwegian territories of Antarctica. At the same time, the institution was renamed the Norwegian Polar Institute.

The discovery of Svalbard – the first place names

The oldest place name we know from the Norwegian polar territories is Svalbard. Svalbard is mentioned in Icelandic annals from 1194, and means something like cold coast or cold edge. Historians have yet to find definitive proof that the name actually refers to what we now call Svalbard, but many believe that the Vikings can have visited the area at that time.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Northern Europeans believed there was land far off in the northern sea, and that Greenland was not an island. The northern sea therefore must be an inland sea with a bay extending some distance north of Iceland.
Willem Barentsz, with his crew and two vessels, was on his third expedition to the northeast in search of a sea passage to China when he discovered Bjørnøya and then Svalbard in June 1596.

The story of how Bjørnøya got its name is described in “No Man’s Land” by Martin Conway (1907). As a crew member tells it:

“The 12th of June in the morning, wee saw a white beare, which wee rowed after with our boate, thinking to cast a roape about her necke; but when we were neare her, shee was so great that we durst not doe it.”

We will not repeat the entire story here, but the short version is as follows: it took them two hours, armed with weapons ranging from muskets to picks and axes, to kill the bear. The pelt was twelve feet long and they found the meat unpalatable… “This island we called the Beare Island.”

The next day they sailed on northwards. They held a more westerly course than on their earlier journeys and veered to the east when they came to the ice edge. After sailing some distance eastwards at about 80°N they came upon ice and turned west-southwest again. They sighted land and tried to find shelter from the ice leeward of Nordvestøyane. Barentsz writes: “To the east of the mouth of the fjord there is a mountain with a cleft, an excellent landmark.” He is undoubtedly referring to Klovningen, and the area where they reached the shore is now called Barentsgattet.

Barentsz writes: “The terrain was mostly broken up, fairly elevated, and consisted of mountains and craggy peaks; therefore we named it Spitsbergen.”
Barentsz’ pair of three-masted sloops kept to the northwest coast of Svalbard until the end of June. They tried to sail through Forlandsundet, but it was too shallow. They saw the mouths of Isfjorden and Bellsund, but did not enter the fjords because of pack ice. After their return home, they drew these fjords onto the map with the names “Groten Inwyck” and “Inwyck”.

A few of the names from this expedition survived through the years of mapping of Svalbard and are in use to this day, formally approved:

  • Spitsbergen
  • Bear Island - Bjørnøya
  • Vogelhoeck - Fuglehuken
  • Ganzen-Eiland - Gåsholmen
  • Zuidhafen - Sørhamna

It was the search for a new trade route to the east that led to the discovery of Bjørnøya and Spitsbergen. England and the Netherlands were the European superpowers and both wanted to be first to discover new possibilities to increase the wealth of their realms. Early in the 1600s the English found walruses on Bjørnøya. They realised that these creatures were easy to kill and that their blubber could be rendered to give substantial amounts of oil. Whaling was taken up gradually, and over the ensuing century many nations harvested the resources that could be found along the coasts of the Svalbard archipelago. More and more regions were discovered and named.

Around 1614, Jan Mayen was added to the charts. The place names that survive from this era mainly refer to features in the coastal landscape and have different types of origins. Examples of names (with current official names in parentheses):

Names that describe geographical location

  • Zuyd Kaap (Sørkapp)
  • Het Noord Ooster Land (Nordaustlandet)

Names of people

  • Van Muydens haven (Van Muydenbukta)
  • Jan Donker (Donkerholmane)
  • Edges Iland (Edgeøya)
  • Christiansbergen (Spitsbergen)

“Emotional” names

  • Treurenburg Bay (Sorgfjorden)
  • Liefte Bay (Liefdefjorden)
  • Misery Mount (Miseryfjellet)

Names linked to religion

  • St. Jans Haven (St. Jonsfjorden)
  • Deyvils Eyland (Djevleøya)
  • Devils Thumb (Djevletommelen)

Names inspired by landscape

  • Roode Bay (Raudfjorden)
  • Bel Sound (Bellsund)
  • Steile Hoek (Bratthuken)

Names that refer to navigation

  • Behouden Haven (Trygghamna)
  • Fair Haven (Fair Haven)

Names based on plants and animals

  • Salaad berg (Salatberget)
  • Whales Head (Kvalpynten)
  • Horne Sound (Hornsund)

From around 1700, whaling moved out to sea and the map drawn by Giles and Rep in 1710 marks the end of the early phase of discovery in the “new” archipelago in the north. What followed was a relatively quiet period when the resources had been exploited and whaling and other activities had moved elsewhere. There was an interlude when Russian hunters spent winters in Svalbard, but the Pomors left few written documents. Thus few place names – if any – survive from this era. However, a handful of expeditions to Svalbard at this time left behind new place names: Phipps (1773), Franklin (1818) and La Recherche (1838 and 1839).

The polar expeditions

1858 marks the start of the era of scientific expeditions to Svalbard. That was when concerted efforts were made to chart the climate, geology and biology of the archipelago. The list below shows the five expedition leaders who probably contributed most new names to Svalbard in this period (examples in parentheses).

  • Adolf Emil Nordenskiöld, Finnish/Swedish geologist and mineralogist who produced several maps based on expeditions carried out between 1858 and 1873. (Gipshuken, Gåsøyene, Lilliehöökfjorden, Dicksonfjorden, Ekmanfjorden, Agardhbukta, Bohemanneset, Heerodden)
  • August Heinrich Peterman, German cartographer and geographer. Produced two maps and was the first to establish and publish rules for naming places. (Kapp Payer, Kapp Weyprecht, Kraussbukta)
  • Sir William Martin Conway, mountaineer and explorer. He was the first to produce a map of the interior of Svalbard. He was a strong proponent of the principles that the earliest names should be given priority and that the place names within a region should have a theme. (Kronebreen, Diademet, Exilfjellet, Kongsvegen)
  • Gerhard De Geer, Swedish geologist and topographer. Produced maps between 1910 and 1923, mainly showing the central, northern and northeastern parts of Spitsbergen. He was the first to subdivide regions into “lands”. He was against translating the main part of a place name from one language to another. (Oscar II Land, Dickson Land, Nordenskiöld Land, Paxfjellet, Operafjellet, Lagerlöfhøgda, Bjørnsonfjellet, Valhallfonna, Jämtlandryggen)
  • Gunnar Isachsen, Norwegian officer and topographer. He led the Norwegian mapping and exploration expeditions from their inception in 1906 and produced maps of northern Spitsbergen in 1915. (Sverrefjellet, Halvdanpiggen, Vekkerøfjellet, Løvenskioldfonna)

When Norway was granted sovereignty over Svalbard, the archipelago bore names from a 300-year history, in 14 different languages. One might ask why Norway did not simply discard all the old place names and start afresh with a clean page when given the right to govern Svalbard. There has long been a tacit agreement, accepted throughout the world, that the person who first discovers an unknown territory has a right to name it. Out of respect for those who had traversed these harsh regions through the centuries, all available documentation of names needed to be gathered together and studied to identify the oldest forms. In many cases, names on different maps had been translated incorrectly, misplaced, duplicated, and so on. In the Foreword to “The Place-names of Svalbard” from 1942, the difficulties were summarised thus:

“We had no model to follow. No other territory in the world has been a field of activity for so many nations, and no other territory that has been visited and exploited so often has remained a no-man’s land as long as Svalbard. Therefore no official authority has kept track of place names, and they have flourished unchecked for three centuries.”

NSIU dedicated ten years to going through the material and five more to creating a reference work of Norwegian place names “out of chaos”. Approximately 10 000 place names had to be gone through, and decisions made concerning how each of the chosen names should be adapted to the Norwegian language. It was resolved that NSIU should use “New Norwegian” names on all maps. Here are some examples of how foreign names have been adapted:

  • Kongsfjorden (e.g. Koninks bay, Kings Bay). Here the decision was to translate the entire name to Norwegian because the spelling had already been translated to several languages.
  • Woodfjorden (Wood Bay). Here the first syllable had not been translated, but been used unchanged in all languages; therefore it was not translated to Norwegian.
  • Billefjorden (Klaas Billen-Bay). This is an example where only the surname of a personal name has been retained, to make the place name shorter. In cases involving personal names, the general rule is that the surname is left unchanged while the descriptive part is translated to Norwegian.
  • Astrupneset (Cape Astrup). The most common method of handling names that include Cap or Cape is to replace it with the Norwegian word odde or nes.
  • Kapp Oetker (Cape Oetker). Some names have retained the ”kapp” syllable in the front, or at the end, as in Sørkapp (Zuyd Kaap).
  • Fuglehuken (Vogel hoek). The common Dutch word for point/cape has in some instances been retained and given the Norwegian form “huk”.
  • Thank God Bay. Some names remain unchanged because they would more or less lose their meaning if they were translated into Norwegian.

The compilation of the reference work eventually led to the publication of “The Place-names of Svalbard” in 1942. The book contained around 3 300 officially approved names and 6 500 non-approved names. It was followed by a supplement in 1958, containing 1 300 more names, including a substantial number of new names that NSIU had adopted for areas that had previously not been named at all. In 1960, “The Place-names of Jan Mayen” was published, with 450 approved and equally many non-approved names.

The name “Svalbard” is very old. But it was not adopted as the name of the islands until 1925. Spitsbergen was the name of the largest island in the archipelago. Between 1925 and 1969, the official name of the largest island was “Vest-Spitsbergen”. It was not until 1969 that Svalbard took on the name we use today.