John Kelly's Washington

In Pr. George's, the peripatetic apostrophe back in the name

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By John Kelly
Sunday, November 29, 2009

When I came to Washington in 1946 as an 18-year-old to attend George Washington University, I seem to recall that Prince George's County didn't have an apostrophe wandering around in its name. Your column made me look on the Internet, and when I typed in "Is Prince George's County a proper geographic name," I got a lot of hits without the apostrophe. Can we now ditch that little squiggle before the "s" ?

-- Ginny Evans, Potomac

Several readers wrote in after last week's column in which Answer Man noted how the U.S. Board on Geographic Names eschews apostrophes. What about Prince George's County?

"Prince George's County is what we call an administrative name," explained Lou Yost, executive secretary of the domestic names committee for the Board on Geographic Names. "The Board on Geographic Names has delegated the authority to the state in naming the features, whereas it's the physical features and unincorporated populated places that the board rules on."

While it's true that the board doesn't like apostrophes, since 1890 it has allowed five uses of it in natural features, most famously in 1933 when residents of Martha's Vineyard successfully lobbied to keep their apostrophe. The others are Ike's Point in New Jersey (1944, because, the board wrote, "it would be unrecognizable otherwise"); John E's Pond in Rhode Island (1963, because it could be confused as John S Pond); Carlos Elmer's Joshua View (1995, at the request of the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names because "otherwise three apparently given names in succession would dilute the meaning," "Joshua" referring to a stand of trees), and Clark's Mountain in Oregon (approved in 2002 at the request of the Oregon Board to correspond with the personal references of Lewis and Clark).

The Prince George's apostrophe has been peripatetic. A 1931 article in The Washington Post about the earliest records of the county said it did not have an apostrophe when it was founded.

But in 1952, Maryland state archivist Morris L. Radoff insisted the apostrophe was correct. Yes, some early records had been found without the apostrophe, "but it just wasn't used often in the 17th century," he told The Post. He admitted that the original engrossed acts of the General Assembly were destroyed by a fire in the State House in 1704.

What's clear is that for most of the 20th century it was Washington Post style not to use the apostrophe. In fact, in a 1947 article about efforts by the newly formed Prince George's Press Association to encourage publications to use the apostrophe, The Post left the apostrophe out, referring to the "Prince Georges Press Association."

Why no apostrophe? Answer Man thinks it must have to do with the efforts of Postmaster General John Wanamaker, who in the 1890s, inspired by the Board of Geographic Names, announced several guidelines. Among them: "The possessive form should be avoided whenever it can be done without destroying the euphony of the name, or changing its descriptive application."

That was for post offices, but the edict's influence appears to have spread. Susan Pearl of the Prince George's County Historical Association looked through some old newspapers. Legal notices published in the Planters' Advocate and Southern Maryland Advertiser before the Civil War refer to "Prince George's County." But when she pulled out a copy of the Prince George's Post from 1946, the name of the newspaper was "The Prince Georges Post."

The tide eventually turned, however. In October 1965, The Post started referring to "Prince George's County." The Prince George's Post added an apostrophe in 1972, after a change of ownership.

Among the other rules announced way back by Wanamaker was that names ending in "borough" be abbreviated to "boro." Prince George's got its apostrophe back but Upper Marlboro never got its "ugh."

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