By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 30, 2010; C01
New York is "the Big Apple" and Chicago "the Windy City," but unless the earnest and obvious "Nation's Capital" is your idea of a cool handle, Washington and its environs have never gotten very far in the civic nickname game.
We are pleased to report, however, that this could be changing. A nickname has recently emerged that could put the Washington area on the regional nickname map: the DMV. As in, D for the District, M for Maryland, and V for Virginia.
Sleek, succinct and inclusive, the name has been in common use for several years among the area's -- ahem, the DMV's -- hip-hop and go-go music crowd. It's familiar to listeners of black-oriented radio stations such as WKYS-FM and WPGC-FM, whose DJs decorate their patter with mentions of it. It also pops up as geographical shorthand ("DMV man seeks woman") on Craigslist, the classified-ad Web site.
It's safe to say, however, that most of the rest of the DMV's populace is unaware that the DMV refers to anything other than a certain sluggish city bureaucracy. Although the phrase has appeared irregularly in The Washington Post, most mainstream news sources haven't picked up on it.
At least not yet. As place names go, "the DMV" has much to recommend it, especially compared with the other ways this odd sandwich of two states and a midsize municipality have been commonly referred to. "The Delmarva" might describe a peninsula incorporating three states, but it overlooks the populous center of the area. "The National Capital Region" seems stiff and bureaucratic.
"I prefer 'the Washington Metropolitan Area,' but I realize that doesn't quite ring well as a lyric, e-mail or text message," says Sandy Bellamy, executive director of the Historical Society of Washington. "So, I guess my geographic situation calls for a situationist response. I live 'in the DMV' according to young, local digital colloquialism, [and] in the 'Washington Metropolitan Area' to the rest of the world, and in 'D.C.' to my peers."
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As hip locutions go, "the DMV" might even be displacing "Chocolate City," the olde tyme designation for black Washington. For all its racial echoes and connotations, "Chocolate City" is increasingly limited; Washington's suburbs have grown exponentially since the term was in vogue and are now home to more African Americans than the District itself.
Another favorable attribute: Like "the Bay Area" or "the Southland" (a somewhat hoary place name for Southern California), "the DMV" recognizes that the area is more than just one city.
It seems important now, even vital, for metropolitan regions to cultivate self-respect by having cool nicknames. Houston is H-Town. Minneapolis, like lots of other cities that exalt their area codes, is the 612. Cincinnati -- and we are not making this up -- is the 'Nati.
We would congratulate the originator of "the DMV," but it's not clear who should get the props. Bellamy isn't sure where the name came from. She suggests this clever coinage may have originated as location shorthand on Craigslist. Some years ago, she says, people advertising apartments or seeking roommates or relationships began specifying "DMV."
Actually, long before then, Washington's Channel 9 was known as WDVM-TV, which stood for "the District, Maryland and Virginia." But WDVM died long before the current vogue for "the DMV" (the call letters live on at a small AM radio station in Walkersville, Md.).
The real source of the name in its current incarnation, several sources insist, is the local music community.
According to Sidney Thomas, the author of "Diamonds in the Raw," a 2009 history of the local rap scene, there are three competing theories. Thomas says a local rapper named 20 Bello claims he started it with a Web site that incorporated the initials (www.dmvundaground.com, now defunct). Second, a local hip-hop promoter named Dre All Day in the Paint claims that he made it popular in 1995, and that DJs at local radio stations picked it up from him, Thomas says. The last theory is that a rap group called the Target Squad started it, and produced a "DMV Mixtape" before the term became known outside the inner-city hip-hop community.
Thomas doesn't take sides. Dre, however, makes a fairly persuasive case for his role. He says he didn't coin the phrase himself -- he heard it in the mid-1990s from a rapper whose name escapes him now -- but he did use it to promote his shows in District clubs and other local venues.
"I told the guy I heard it from, 'You're sitting on a gold mine with that name,' " Dre says. "I said, 'We're going to make it nationally and world renowned.'" He says he slapped it all over fliers for his shows -- "It was 'DMV this, DMV that!' " -- and soon the phrase had made its way onto the air, first on WKYS.
The idea wasn't geographic solidarity so much as a marketing ploy, Dre says. Since D.C. was too small by itself to support the burgeoning hip-hop scene, he says, "rebranding" the area as "the DMV" expanded the potential fan base.
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Now the term is accepted as a regional designation among music fans in other areas, says Tyrone Norris, a local hip-hop artist, manager and promoter. "It's about unity," he says. "If we thought of ourselves as a bunch of unrelated [jurisdictions and neighborhoods], we'd never be able to compete against New York and L.A.," which have very large regional music scenes. "But if you get 5 million people together [under one regional name], it's pretty powerful."
In fact, there's some question as to where "the DMV" begins and ends. Dre says rappers in Baltimore have started to warm up to identifying themselves as part of the DMV. He's even heard from some in Richmond who are self-identifying the same way.
Baltimore? Richmond? Purists have to wonder: Is there really that much M and V in the DMV?