Sunday, August 3, 2008

An H By Any Other Name Doth Sound As Sweet?

What’s in a name? Pittsburgh revisited.

John, Jon, or Juan: I received so many comments from the recent Pittsburgh post that I was moved to write a followup. I once had a friend named Jon. He was proud of the fact that his name was unique. Everybody else with a similar sounding name spelled theirs John or Juan. He spelled his Jon. He said the spelling of his name distinguished him from those whose name is synonymous with the room in which men relieve themselves. He also said that it shows his heritage is 100% American, although I’m not sure the Native Americans would agree that John is any more American than Juan. As for me, I think John became Jon after having had the “H” knocked out of him. The same might be said about Pittsburgh.

More on my former hometown: Pittsburgh is probably the most frequently misspelled name among American cities. There are wannabe Pittsburghs, namely in Kansas and California but neither of them boast an h at the end of their names or a confluence of rivers in their midst. The Pittsburgh that is today accessible from State Route 51 via either the Liberty Tubes or the newer Fort Pitt Tunnels was named by General John Forbes in honor of Sir William Pitt. It was founded in 1758 complete with an “H” at the end of its name. All was well for the next 30 years or so. Nobody bothered to challenge the “H” until some troublemakers in the form of politicians decided to fix something that wasn’t broken. The feds were screwing things up way back then, long before anybody had ever heard of George W. Bush.

I’m from the government and I’m here to help you: In 1890 President Benjamin Harrison created a U. S. Board on Geographic Names in an effort to bring some order to the naming of cities, towns, lakes, mountains, and other things that needed to be named. At the time some states had as many as five towns with the same name. One of the first orders of business of the board was to have the “H” dropped from any city whose name ended in “burgh.” Pittsburgh area people have always been a proud, independent lot and they decided to keep their “H” since the town was obviously a historical exception. In short, they told the Board to stick the rules where the sun don’t shine, and they didn’t mean the smoggy skies of their city. For the next 20 years they waged a torrid campaign to keep their beloved “H” even in the face of threatened federal troop intervention. In 1911 the Board finally relented and let Pittsburgh be Pittsburgh.

Cleaning up the language: An excerpt from the Board directive for standardizing names and words used in the designation of places follows:
(a)The avoidance, so far as seems practicable, of the possessive form of names.
(b) The dropping of the final "h" in the termination "burgh."
(c) The abbreviation of "borough" to "boro."
(d) The spelling of the word "center" as here given.
(e) The discontinuance of the use of hyphens in connecting parts of names.
(f) The omission wherever practicable of the letters "C.H." (Court House) after the names of county seats.
(g) The simplification of names consisting of more than one word by their combination into one word.
(h) The avoidance of the use of diacritic characters.
(i) The dropping of the words "city" and "town" as parts of names.

Three cheers for North Dakota: Oh, did I mention a couple of other US cities named Pittsburg sans “H?” The list of name-alikes included:
Pittsburg, California - Contra Costa County
Pittsburg, Colorado - Gunnison County
Pittsburg, Florida - Polk County
Pittsburg, Georgia - DeKalb County
Pittsburg, Illinois - Fayette County
Pittsburg, Illinois - Williamson County
Pittsburg, Indiana - Carroll County
Pittsburg, Iowa - Van Buren County
Pittsburg, Kansas - Crawford County
Pittsburg, Kentucky - Laurel County
Pittsburg, Michigan - Shiawassee County
Pittsburg, Missouri - Hickory County
Pittsburg, New Hampshire - Coos County
Pittsburg, Oklahoma - Pittsburg County
Pittsburg, Oregon - Columbia County
Pittsburg, South Carolina - Greenwood County
Pittsburg, Texas - Camp County
Pittsburg, Utah - Piute County
Pittsburgh, North Dakota - Pembina County

A little blogging music Maestro... Anything BUT “I Left My Heart in San Francisco, Chicago, or New York New York.”

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