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I'm making an alternate colonial scenario, and it comes with its own client states, settlements, and other things that the coloniser must have a name for. Historically, those names were often according to a format. For example:

  • New [place from home country]
    • New Amsterdam/York, New Zealand, New South Wales
  • [discoverer] [classifier]
    • Stewart Island, Bering Strait, Cook Islands
  • [important person]-ia
    • Virginia, Columbia, Louisiana
  • [Bastardised native term]
    • Yucatan, Canada, Mexico

An exhaustive list of those formats can probably be made, but that would be a question for History.SE. My question is more broadly; what considerations does a coloniser have in naming their colony? Was it inevitable that Mexico be named Mexico, or could it have been named Carlosia in another timeline, after the then Spanish king?

From the in-universe perspective, what names make the most sense for a colonist under what circumstances? Or is it just a matter of chance and personal preference which format is used?

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Zeitgeist

It mainly comes down to whatever is top of mind around the time of discovery or naming. Overall, though, it's going to be fairly arbitrary.

Costa Rica (and other Rico/Rica names) simply describe the impression of wealth given at the time.

California is thought to have been named after a fictional island in a popular book.

Numerous places have been named for the day they were discovered or claimed on, such as Rio de Janeiro (for January 1st), Christmas Island (for Christmas Day), and so on. Had these places been claimed a few weeks earlier or later they would likely not go by those names today.

British Columbia was renamed that from Columbia to distinguish it from the 'American Columbia' of Oregon Country, but that name comes from the ship of the explorer who mapped the mouth of the river. Had the Columbia Rediviva been named something else, so would the river and territory around it.

Places named after royalty are so when the namesake is in or coming to power – Victoria, Georgia.

Combined I'm not sure the above strategies account for even half of all colonial names coined by European explorers and conquerors, leaving numerous other naming strategies (some you mentioned) to win out in the end.

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It would depend on a number of factors:

Native population
If you have a native population living in your colony, obviously they will already have a name for the place. Whether you can give it a new name or not depends on how much you assimilate this population. If for example you change their entire language, it is easier to get a name change past them.

Your weight amongst the community
Obviously if you give something a new name, for it to stick you will have to have enough sway in your community to have people take it seriously and actually use this name. This also depends on whether the colony names in a community effort, or by just one person with a "good" idea.

Ease of use
The above also depends on the name itself, whether it is easy to use and if the people like it. Of course you could name your island "Fantastic Archipelago of Riches and Treasures", but it's a bit long and people might not take the effort to say the full name, potentially leading to unfortunate abbreviations and the like.

Personal preference
Someone who names a colony can pick a name depending on many factors. If they are patriotic or nationalistic, it's common to pick a name which refers to the glorious motherland (new this and that, or straight up the same name as their home town). If they are proud of their discovery, they might name it after themselves or someone close to them. Often colonisers will also refer to a place by a landmark or characteristic ("Las Vegas" literally means "The Meadows").

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(Assuming non-dictatorial command structure.) In order for to promote the thriving of the colony, the choice of names should consider:

Ownership.

In the management sense.

a generalized sense of ownership regarding the company’s (read colony's) success as a whole.

Create a suggestion box, each colonist is entitled to one name suggestion for the colony as a whole. Results produce a list of the top (20?) names, which everyone then votes on (A command preferred name could be weighted to be included no-matter what). This helps to instill a sense of participation and ownership of the colony, thus beginning a trend of getting everyone to play their part in making the colony a success and promoting social coherence and loyalty.

As things progress, this could be repeated to allow the naming of towns/settlements. It's important that the children and specialist groups be allowed to participate. Expect these place-names to be quirky and charming. (Remember Boaty McBoatface.) There's Eggs and Bacon Bay in Tasmania, Punkeydoodles Corners in Ontario and The Office Girls in Antarctica, Pee Pee Township, Ohio. All of their given names would behistorically significant to the new land. For inspiration: Unusual place names wiki. Of course, local heroes are bound to win by popularity sometimes too.

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I think, this somewhat depends on your colonists.

A large group of similar origin settling together and on their own is more likely to name their place after home or something religious (e.g. New Amsterdam, which was founded by the Dutch).

A group of similar origin settling together on behalf/commanded by their ruler/a charismatic leader might go for the "important person thingy".

When something starts out as a small settlement and people are drawn to it by something, it'd be named after whatever is the reason people come there - or the places founder (as pointed out in the comments).

Small settlements in a beautiful spot or a newly discovered location with low common identity would go for the name of the location (Rhodes Island) or the explorer (again Rhodes Island, I guess).

So, I'd say you need to determine how the place was settled and how this process, or more specific how the common identity of the settlers differs from our history.

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  • $\begingroup$ "When something starts out as a small settlement and people a [sic] drawn to it by something, it'd be named after whatever is the reason people come there." It's worth noting that such places are also often named after their founder. $\endgroup$ – The Daleks Jul 3 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ Added the idea, thanks @TheDaleks $\endgroup$ – Erik Jul 3 at 13:25

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