Brief history

Notes on the history of ICOS

(Elwys De Stefani)

1. The first years

The foundation of ICOS in 1949 was preceded by two important events: in 1938 Albert Dauzat presided over the first International Congress of Toponymy and Anthroponymy held in Paris, while the second edition of the congress was organised in the French capital nine years later, after the end of the war, in 1947. At that time Albert Dauzat had already published his pivotal onomastic studies (Les noms de personnes 1925, Les noms de lieux 1926, La toponyme française 1939) for which he earned recognition and veneration. While the necessity of founding an international association of onomasticians was felt since the very first congress (Onoma 1, p. 6), it was only during the third congress, held in Brussels in 1949, that the International Committee of Onomastic Sciences/Comité International des Sciences Onomastiques was instituted. According to the first statutes (published in Onoma 1, pp. 22-25), ICOS congresses where to be held every three years - a rule that has been respected almost perfectly (with the single exception of the Amsterdam congress (1963), which took place only two years after the preceding one, held in Florence in 1961). The statutes also declared that the committee had to be composed of a Secretary-General and at least ten other members. The first Secretary-General was Hendrik Jozef van de Wijer, from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, and it is the same University that hosted the headquarters of ICOS, the International Centre of Onomastics, set up at Leuven's Instituut voor Naamkunde. From the beginning, ICOS was also affiliated to the International Council of Philosophy and Humanistic Studies of UNESCO. Finally, in 1950 the committee's periodical publication, Onoma, was launched. While Onoma started as a "bibliographical and information bulletin" in which recent publications and information about conferences, research projects, dissertations, etc. were presented, it has nowadays become one of the leading journals publishing papers about name-related research. Occasionally, Onoma was also the repository of the proceedings of the ICOS congresses: e.g., the proceedings of the Berne Congress (1975) were published in the Onoma volumes 20 (1976) to 22 (1978).

New Year card signed by the first Secretary-General of ICOS, Hendrik Jozef van de Wijer, commemorating Albert Dauzat.

New Year card signed by the first Secretary-General of ICOS, Hendrik Jozef van de Wijer, commemorating Albert Dauzat. (University of Berne, Karl Jaberg-Bibliothek)

2. A growing number of members

ICOS rapidly grew to international recognition as a scientific organisation: the fourth congress, which took place in Uppsala (1952) and which was organised by Jöran Sahlgren and his team, attracted already 180 attendees from 25 countries. The number of delegates of ICOS kept increasing. By 1966, ICOS counted about 80 members, by 1990 a total of 147 members (including honorary members) were registered (Van Langendonck 1995: 277).

The rapid growth of the organisation led to the necessity of redefining the guidance of ICOS. In 1955 the Secretary-General was to be sustained by an Assistant Secretary, Henri Draye (Onoma 6, p. 4). The first Secretary-General of ICOS - and also the one who remained in office for the longest time (18 years) - passed away in December 1968. After Van de Wijer's death (see obituary in Onoma 12, pp. 189-191), Henri Draye was elected the new Secretary-General, while Karel Roelandts was henceforth Assistant Secretary. Until 1990 the direction of ICOS was tightly linked to the University of Leuven, which supplied all the guiding members of the association. After Draye's death in 1983 (see obituary in Onoma 26, pp.1-4) it was decided to create an ICOS Executive Committee formed by the Secretary-General (Karel Roelandts), the Assistant Secretary (Willy van Langendonck) as well as two further members (Ernst Eichler and William Nicolaisen).

Major changes in the body of ICOS occurred in the 1990's: during the Helsinki congress (1990), the statutes of the organisation were redefined (Onoma 30, pp. 11-12). Three years later, during the Trier congress, the statutes were again adapted (Onoma 31, pp. 13-16). The society gave itself a new name, the International Council of Onomastic Sciences. The membership policy was redefined and contributed to an increase in subscriptions. A Membership Committee was constituted, which had to evaluate membership requests: individuals could only become members if proposed by two "acknowledged onomasticians" (Onoma 31, p. 14). The current format of the ICOS Board of Directors was defined at that time (6 executive members, 6 ex officio members) and the duration of office was limited to two terms (except for the President, whose office was limited to one term, i.e. three years). Slight amendments to the statutes were proposed in 2001 and approved by the General Assembly during the Uppsala congress (2002).

A further important change applied to Onoma: while Onoma was conceived as a bibliographic and information bulletin by its founders, in 1993 the last bibliographic issue of Onoma (vol. 31) was published. From 1994 on, Onoma was published as a scientific journal/yearbook, and starting with vol. 34 (1998/1999) thematic issues were regularly proposed under the direction of guest editors.

Participants of the 12th ICOS Congress, held in Berne in 1975.
Participants of the 12th ICOS Congress, held in Berne in 1975. (University of Berne, Institut für Germanistik, Forschungsstelle für Namenkunde)

3. ICOS today

Since the beginning of the current century, ICOS opened up its membership policy: all persons with an interest in onomastic research are now free to become members of ICOS. New statutes were adopted in 2002 by the General Assembly and in the same year the ICOS headquarters ceased to be based in Leuven: the official seat of ICOS has since then been located in Uppsala, at the Institute for language and folklore (SOFI).

Over the decades, people who have been active in ICOS have managed both to maintain the ideals of its founders and to keep up with current questions that social and human sciences are facing. ICOS still constitutes the only international organisation for name studies and allows for scholarly exchange by promoting the triennial Congress, by publishing scientific papers in Onoma and by circulating regular newsletters. Since the origins of ICOS, the study of names has opened up to a plethora of research questions and methods that coexist with the historical and etymological procedures that made onomastics renowned. Name studies continue to captivate new generations of researchers in the human and social sciences although - or perhaps precisely because - "that which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet".

ICOS Presidents:

  • Hendrik Jozef van de Wijer (1950–1968)
  • Henri Draye (1969–1983)
  • Karel Roelandts (1984–1990)
  • William F. H. Nicolaisen (1990–1996)
  • Rob Rentenaar (1996–1999)
  • Isolde Hausner (1999–2002)
  • Mats Wahlberg (2002–2005)
  • Maria Giovanna Arcamone (2005–2008)
  • Sheila Embleton (2008–2011)
  • Carole Hough (2011–2014)
  • Milan Harvalík (2014–)

Editors-in-chief of ONOMA:

  • Hendrik Jozef van de Wijer (1950–1968)
  • Henri Draye (1969–1982)
  • Willy van Langendonck (1982–2002; de facto since 1968)
  • Doreen Gerritzen (2002–2011)
  • Elwys De Stefani (2011–13)
  • Antti Leino (2013–)

Former ICOS statutes:

  • ONOMA 1 (1950): 22–25
  • ONOMA 30 (1990–1991): 11–12
  • ONOMA 31 (1992–1993): 13–16 (also in Van Langendonck 1995)

Current ICOS statutes:


  • Leibring, K. (2010), ICOS och Norden. Botolv onomastikkens harding. Veneskrift til Botolv Helleland på 70-årsdagen 9. juni 2010. Red. av Terje Larsen og Tom Schmidt, pp. 53–58.
  • Nicolaisen, W. F. H. (2000): Fifty years Onoma (1950–2000). Onoma 35, pp. 5–16.
  • Van Langendonck, W. (1995): International onomastic organizations. Activities, journals, and collections. Name studies. An international handbook of onomastics, ed. by E. Eichler et al. Berlin: De Gruyter, vol I., pp. 277–280.