How Pittsburgh Got Its "H" Back (and 7 Other Geographic Naming Oddities)
Thanks to the United States Board on Geographic Names, big cities and little towns alike lost a lot of character in the late 1800s. In 1891, with President Benjamin Harrison’s stamp of approval, the board decided a few things about how towns should be named.
1. “In names ending in ‘burgh,’ the final ‘h’ should be dropped.”
Oh, you’ve been happily using that “h” for more than a century? You’ve got newspapers, baseball teams, and buildings already bearing the consonant? Too bad. While most cities didn’t mind enough to raise a stink about it, Pittsburgh didn’t make the change to “Pittsburg” quietly. The city was originally named to honor William Pitt the Elder, but it was General John Forbes who did the naming. His Scottish background is the reason for that extra “h”—think Edinburgh. To edit the spelling to the German “burg” was akin to editing the city’s founding. After 20 years of complaints, the Board finally overturned their previous decision on Pittsburg(h)’s controversial consonant on July 19, 1911. Town representatives got a little sassy when they announced victory:
Hon. George T. Oliver, United States Senate:
Sir: At a special meeting of the United States Geographic Board held on July 19, 1911, the previous decision with regard to the spelling of Pittsburgh without a final H was reconsidered and the form given below was adopted:
Pittsburgh, a city in Pennsylvania (not Pittsburg).
C. S. SLOAN,
Pittsburgh isn’t the only city that battled for an H. In 2006, the citizens of Alburg, Vermont, voted to change the name of the town back to its original spelling of “Alburgh,” which had endured a stunted spelling since the 1891 Board decision.
2. “The possessive form should be avoided whenever it can be done without destroying the euphony of the name, or changing its descriptive action.”
Hence Downers Grove, Pikes Peak, and Harpers Ferry. In fact, as of May 2013, the Committee has only approved five official possessive apostrophes in the entire United States—Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Ike’s Point, N.J.; John E’s Pond, R.I.; Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Ariz.; and Clark’s Mountain, Ore. And even Martha’s Vineyard had to fight for three decades until getting their possessive restored in 1933.
3. “Names ending in ‘borough’ should be abbreviated to ‘boro.’”
Middlesboro, Kentucky, a little town of about 10,000, near the Cumberland Gap, lost its “ugh” thanks to this rule. So did Marlborough, Massachusetts, named after a town in England. The Massachusetts town really felt the three-letter loss and rallied to have them restored.
4. "The word 'center,' as part of a name, should be spelled as above and not 'centre.'"
At least two places in the U.S. have managed to skirt the issue: Centre, Alabama, and Centre County, Pennsylvania.
5. "The use of hyphens in connecting part of names should be discontinued."
There are a few hyphenates still in existence today: Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and Milton-Freewater, Oregon, among others. But names like Ne-Ha-Sa-Ne Park, New York, were obliterated with the new 1891 rule. In its place, of course? "Nehasane."
6. "In the case of names consisting of more than one word, it is desirable to combine them to one word."
Obviously that one didn’t stick as well as the ban on hyphens and possessive apostrophes, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1894, a slew of cities with two names, like Olive Bridge, New York, were smushed together into single words: Olivebridge.
7. "It is desirable to avoid the use of diacritic characters."
Those are accented letters such as “á,” or letters with glyphs, such as “ö.” It’s possible that San Jose fell victim to the 1891 homogenization of city spellings. Though it was originally founded as “El Pueblo de San José de Guadalupe” in 1777, let’s be honest—that was never going to fit on a postmark. Whether or not the change was due to the Board on Geographic Names, the city’s spelling morphed into “San Jose” over the years. Since 1979, however, the city has been using the diacritic-infused “San José” on the city seal and official city correspondence. The city charter still recognizes “San Jose” as the city name.
8. "It is desirable to avoid the use of the words city and town, as parts of names."
Tell that to Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Atlantic City, New York City, Iowa City, and Salt Lake City.
Primary photo—part of an 1892 map of Pennsylvania—courtesy of MapsofPA.