'P.G.': Insult or Abbreviation?

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker and Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 7, 2006

Larry Elmore first realized he had stumbled onto a sore subject four years ago. He was a salesman at a Rockville home appliance store, ringing up a customer. "Oh, you live in P.G.," Elmore recalled saying. The customer corrected him icily. "No, I live in Prince George's County."

What's the big deal, thought Elmore, now a real estate broker who has lived in Prince George's for five years and always called it "P.G."

But it is a big deal to some people. The decades-old debate over how to refer to the county was resurrected after the April 27 airing of an episode of ABC's "Commander in Chief." The show focused on a fictional protest over the county's high homicide rate and a lack of police protection, and some people found its repeated use of the term "P.G." as offensive as its portrayal of the county as a lawless place in need of emergency federal protection.

"The people in this county know that when other people say it, it's meant as a put-down," Sharon Taylor, a spokesman for County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D), said after the episode.

Going back at least 30 years, some county politicians have associated use of the abbreviation with disrespect and have worked to discourage it, even as some residents scratch their heads about the connection. The debate is a complex one, fraught with racial and class implications and compounded by sensitivities about where the county fits in among its more affluent suburban neighbors, including Montgomery and Fairfax counties.

After the "Commander in Chief" episode aired, Prince George's officials held a news conference to denounce the show, which made no mention of the county's relative affluence -- the mean household income is about $70,000, according to census data -- and labeled it a community with "one of the fastest-growing crime rates in the country." Homicides are down this year from a county record set last year. ABC Entertainment later released a statement apologizing for any offense.

Prince George's officials and other image-conscious residents credit former county executive Wayne K. Curry (D) with the heightened awareness of the county's name. Curry, a businessman who had never held political office before being elected in 1994 as the county's first African American county executive, said he would always correct people who used the term P.G.

Curry said the anti-P.G. campaign had earlier roots. Winfield M. Kelly Jr. launched a "new quality" campaign when he was county executive in the mid-1970s, Curry said, to transform the county's image when it was still mostly white and largely rural.

When Curry took office in the mid-1990s, he again promoted the idea, which was largely embraced by the county's growing affluent black population.

"It's not just about respect," said Curry, who served two terms. "It was about marketing. It's a question of how your community is viewed. Prince George's had always been regarded by the rest of the region as the 'ugliest stepsister.' When we were referred to as P.G., it was a contraction. We were looking at what the summary depicted in the minds of those who said it."

Alvin Thornton, a Howard University political science professor and former three-term chairman of the Prince George's County school board, said that when he moved into the county in 1973, officials were decrying the use of P.G., and the county was often mocked for its pickup-truck image and blue collar roots.

By 1990, after the county's demographics had changed, Thornton said, sensitivities about the name were attached to the history of blacks being given derisive pseudo-names and denied honorifics.

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