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Monday, November 2, 2009

USA, United States or nothing

One of the features of the newer genealogy database programs is the ability to regularize or standardize place names. But, the standardized place names are anything but standard between programs. For example, New FamilySearch, the huge database from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has a feature called Standard Finder and according to this source, the place names in the U.S. are appended with "United States." However, there are major database programs, like Legacy Family Tree, that add on "USA."

Now what do we do? Do we put anything after the entries in all of the various databases or do we just leave the designation of the country blank? Originally, with the paper forms of family group sheets there was an extremely limited space for entering the place names. It was a common practice for those using the forms to enter place names either partially or with a number of abbreviations. Early genealogical database programs also had a character limitation on the fields for geographic information. Early users of Personal Ancestral File commonly abbreviated most, if not all of the place designations. Unfortunately, the practice of abbreviation and shortening of place names has not gone completely away, even though there are now adequate spaces allocated for the complete geographic designation. Because of more than adequate space, it is no longer considered acceptable to use abbreviations.

This brings up the issue of the use of United States versus USA or whatever. It is interesting to note that although we commonly refer to our own country as the United States, there are other countries, such as Mexico, that are also properly known as "United States." The official name of the country of Mexico is United Mexican States or United States of Mexico depending on how you translate the name in Spanish. It is also interesting that the official name of the USA is, of course, The United States of America.

Usually there is no possibility of confusion. For that reason, it is common for the place names in the U.S. to end with the state. However, in our international community, there are multiple places with the same name as some of the U.S. states. A good example is Florida. A place name search in the Family History Library Catalogue on the place "Florida" will give you a list of 25 matching places, from such different geographic areas as the Philippines to Brazil. It quickly becomes apparent that in some cases it would be wise to specify the country as well as the state. So why not do so in all cases and make it a general rule? That is what is being done with standardized place names.

As a side note, my wife once flew to Panama City, Panama but almost ended up in Panama City, Florida. This is another reason why a more complete specification of place names is desirable. Sometimes at the country level but commonly at the city and county level, there can be massive confusion. As an example, nineteen states have a "Clay" county.

So which one of the two designations are we all going to use. I see no reason not to use USA. It is commonly recognized on products around the world and is an easy three letter designation. However, we do have to live with the designation "Unites States" even though there is a small measure of ambiguity on an international level. For the present, until there is some kind of international agreement, I will continue to use whatever the particular program thinks is the correct designation; either USA or United States. But I am going to add one or the other to all my place names. Nothing is not an option in our global age.

1 comment:

  1. Good comment James. In Legacy's Master Location List there is an option under Options > Expand/Contract to add USA or United States to the end of all U.S. locations. In Legacy's latest update, we added the United States option to help researchers be consistent with the naming conventions of FamilySearch's Standard Finder. For more on this, see our recent article at