How Pittsburgh Spells Existential Crisis: Without An "H"

Mar 6, 2015

Once a month, seated at a long table in a conference room, the members of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (USGN) decide what to call things. The board was created in 1890 during a period of persistent exploration. Maps and reports were coming back from the west and Alaska with different names for the same feature. The USGN formed to standardize names across the federal government. In 1891 the USGN ordered all cities ending in “burgh” to drop the "h."

“In 1891 what the records show is the request of the Postal Service eliminated all places that ended in burgh. The reasoning that we have in the records is to save space,” said Lou Yost, executive secretary for the USGN.

In an unlikely concern for character space not seen again until the advent of Twitter, the USGN’s push for name standardization lopped off one of Pittsburgh’s most distinctive features, linguistically speaking.

British General John Forbes, born in Scotland, arrived at the confluence of the three rivers in 1758. His forces were depleted, sick and beleaguered, but unchallenged. He dubbed the land “Pittsbourgh” in honor of the French and Indian War’s principal strategist, William Pitt the Elder, the British Secretary of State.

“Pitt was responsible for the military strategy that was successful and Forbes, in acknowledgement of that, named this place for William Pitt,” said Louise Sturgess, executive director for Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. “General Forbes was from Dunfermline, Scotland and had a Scottish accent. He would have said ‘Pitts-boro’ like ‘Edin-boro’ (Edinburgh, Scotland).”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary "burgh" and "bourgh" are variations on borough, but the “o” didn’t stick. That the “h” remained is fairly impressive, said Scott Kiesling, associate professor of linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh.

“In the history of English there are places where we used ‘h’ for particular sounds that aren’t there anymore so it’s kind of odd to have them. But spelling reform [in English] happens slowly. Language change happens all the time, people are changing the way they talk, but the spelling is still the same.”

Unlike other burghs that hung up their “h”s, many of Pittsburgh’s major institutions stubbornly held out: the Chamber of Commerce of the City of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Steel Company, the Pittsburgh Stock Exchange, four newspapers, as well as all legal and municipal documents.

The city’s quiet resistance might have persisted indefinitely if it weren’t for U.S. Senator and Allegheny County native George T. Oliver. He got the issue between his teeth in 1911 and called on the city’s postmaster, William H. Davis, to establish the "h"’s place in history and common usage. With a middle name beginning with “h,” perhaps Davis had a personal soft spot for the consonant. In a flurry of letters, Oliver pressed the board to reconsider its 1891 decision.

"Names are important to people because it’s about their identities,” said Kiesling. “It connects them with their past and a sense of being able to say who are you are rather than somebody else telling you.”

Yielding to historical documentation and Oliver’s personal appearance, the board reinstated the "h" on July 19, 1911. Despite the victory, our consonant remains embattled: a 1994 map from Gambellis US, Inc, for instance, omits the final letter.

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