Why is there no J Street in Washington? I’ve often wondered.
— Ann Van Aken, Arlington
Answer Man is confident that no one believes the story that was once bandied about: That Pierre L’Enfant, the designer of our fair city, so despised John Jay, American politician, diplomat and Supreme Court justice, that he slighted the man by omitting a J Street in Washington.
Or was it Thomas Jefferson who detested Jay and thus banished J from our maps? Stories differ. The important point is, those stories are wrong.
There’s an orthographic reason why our streets jump from I to K, skipping J: Long ago, the letter J didn’t exist. And even once it started to exist in the English alphabet, it so closely resembled I that having an I Street and a J Street would have invited confusion.
It may be hard for modern minds to accept, but iust — excuse me, just — look at an item from the Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection. It’s called the Trevelyon “Miscellany,” and it’s a book of assorted ephemera, including a page depicting the English alphabet as it existed in 1608, when the book was created by Thomas Trevelyon. There is no J. (There is no U, either, something Answer Man will return to in a moment.)
There is no J because it was considered a variant of I, said Suzanne Kemmer, a linguistics professor at Rice University who has studied the history of writing. The English alphabet is derived from the Roman alphabet, and those Latin-speaking toga-wearers didn’t use certain sounds — and thus didn’t need certain letters — that later languages used.
For more proof that J was a problematic creature, we can turn to a book at the Library of Congress. It’s called “The acts of the Assembly, now in Force, in the Colony of Virginia” and was published in Williamsburg in 1769. It was owned by the aforementioned Thomas Jefferson, who was well-versed in Latin. At the bottom of one page, an I stands alone. It is a “signature,” used in early printing to denote the sequence of a book.
To show who owned the volume, Jefferson simply scribbled a T before the I, creating his initials: T.I.
It likely wasn’t L’Enfant who named the District’s streets, anyway. Jefferson, James Madison and the city’s commissioners of public buildings all worked together to decide the names, said architectural historian Don Alexander Hawkins.
In 1792, the first map of Washington was published. It had streets going from A to W. There were no X, Y or Z streets, because there was no need for them. The City of Washington was only the inner core of the 10-by-10-mile square carved out of Maryland and Virginia. W was the last street.
But there was a U Street, although there isn’t a U in the Trevelyon “Miscellany.” Remember that the miscellany was created nearly 200 years before the creation of Washington. Just as the letter J emerged from the letter I, so the letters U and W emerged from the letter V.
“I and J didn’t use to be differentiated in English spelling systems, then they were,” Suzanne said. The same thing had already happened with U, V and W, she explained.
But let us move from the linguistic back to the historical. Not everyone has appreciated the alphabetical simplicity of Washington’s central street names. Some people thought it was boring. Historian Michael Harrison has spent years researching Washington’s street names, which had major overhauls between 1904 and 1908 to bring uniformity to the system.
Michael found that in 1872 the Board of Public Works recommended changing the names to honor famous Americans. Thus F Street NW would become Franklin Street, G Street would become Gallatin.
In 1889, The Washington Post published a letter from a reader identified as “C.H.R.” who had come up with a plan that used the names of U.S. cities and even echoed American geography. Streets in Northeast D.C. would be named after cities in the Northeast: Albany, Boston, Concord, etc. The streets in Northwest Washington would begin Akron, Buffalo, Chicago. In Southeast: Atlanta, Beaufort, Charleston. And in Southwest: Austin, Birmingham, Chattanooga.
In 1910, a Post letter-writer suggested using the names of Indian tribes: “Arapaho, Bonack, Catawba.”
“The people who are most vocal about it don’t think prosaic letters do justice to the greatness of the nation,” Michael said. “They find it childish or immature to have it that way. We should do something better, they say. And they suggest something better — or something they think is better.”
As you know, none was adopted. Answer Man likes to think the District’s seemingly simplistic street names honor something that may seem prosaic but is in fact vital to civilization: the alphabet itself.