The names and meanings of Everest – an old project, a new fellowship, and a fascinating database

May 29th has recently been celebrated as “Everest day”, celebrating the ascent of the World’s highest mountain by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on this day in 1953. Everest has long been a symbol of many things, including the Himalayas and Nepal, endurance and courage, mountaineering itself, but also imperialism and the excesses of mountain tourism. The peak’s most common name testifies of the enduring legacy of colonial exploration, surveying, and administration since it was surveyed in the mid-19th century, as well as of more contemporary dynamics of reappropriation and empowerment. As my work on place-naming processes in the Alps, Turkey and Central Asia led me to question the use of ‘exonyms’ and specifically of personal names to name peaks and passes across the globe, I grew more and more interested in the quintessentially imperial toponym that is Everest and took the opportunity of collaborating with colleagues who had already started a research project on Everest, its cultural legacies and future perspectives.

Other Everests is a wonderful project led by Jonathan Westaway and I feel privileged and honoured to be able to take part to this alongside scholars whose work I have been reading and admiring for a while now, notably Peter Hansen whose The Summits of Modern Man. Mountaineering after the Enlightenment is one of my favourite books on the history of mountaineering.

My paper in the Other Everests book will be a synthesis on debates that have been surrounding the place-name Everest since the 19th century and its use by official institutions geographers and cartographers, mountaineers and other stakeholders, from Nepal and the Khumbu region to the global mountaineering industry.

It will mostly be based on archival documents, notably from the Royal Geographical Society archive, which I am now able to access digitally thanks to a six-month RGS-IBG-Wiley fellowship that was granted to me a couple months ago. I am very pleased with the material and grateful despite my unsatisfaction at the commodification of such archival documents. Sadly, I will only be able to browse through the RGS’s immense breadth of material on Everest and the Trigonometrical Survey of India until August 31st, as my university is not willing to pay the thousands of €€€€ the company is charging research and teaching institutions to let them access the database. While that is problematic, I try to make the most of the deal, and will do my best to submit an interesting manuscript to the publishers later this summer  

Here are my chapter title and abstract:

‘Past and Future Names of Mount Everest: Mountain Cartography and the Languages of Exonymy.’

This contribution based on fieldwork in the archives of geographical and mountaineering societies in London, Berlin, Paris and Grenoble looks at some of the scientific and diplomatic debates raised by the existence of Mount Everest as a place name, and examines key arguments put forward to defend or criticize its use from its suggestion by the surveyor general of India Andrew Waugh at the Royal Geographical Society in 1858 to current discussions on the enduring presence of mountain exonyms in post-colonial societies.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the initial controversy between Waugh and Brian Hodgson, a naturalist and keen linguist who was then British resident at Kathmandu, was echoed by extensive commentaries on the use of non-local names in mountain toponymy and cartography. Those debates notably show that before the name of the peak became a symbol of European onomastic imperialism, it is first and foremost the commemorative use of a personal name that was considered a case of failed geographical nomenclature that would certainly soon be replaced by a better name.

Then why has this name not been supplanted by a more fitting toponym yet? Will it ever be? I propose to use critical geography and pragmatics to formulate three hypotheses on the future of ‘Mount Everest’ based on two other case studies in the French Alps and Tajikistan as well as new theoretical perspectives on naming and name change.

Excerpts from a few of the articles that were published on the topic over the years:

Citer ce billet
Felix de Montety (2023, 29 mai). The names and meanings of Everest – an old project, a new fellowship, and a fascinating database. Linguistic Geographies // Géographies linguistiques. Consulté le 21 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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