An American Story: Give Me Back My 'H!'

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Not that you would have noticed, but a long time ago, on Sept. 4, 1890, the president of the United States quietly began to attack the letter "H."

Not all "Hs". Just the ones that sit quietly at the ends of many city, town and village names.

Like the "H" in Pittsburgh. You don't speak it. You can't hear it, and so the United States Board on Geographic Names, created by President Benjamin Harrison, announced:

"In names ending in 'burgh,'" the final 'H' should be dropped."

This was more than a pronouncement. It had the power of law. In 1891, Pittsburgh, Pa., and Newburgh, N.Y., and Williamsburgh in Brooklyn and Vicksburgh, Tenn., and burghs all over America had their final, silent "H" removed from all Federal maps and agencies. The Post Office, for example, called Pittsburgh "Pittsburg."

What happened then is the subject of my story.

For the last hundred years or so, many of those suddenly "H"-less towns, one by one, have been demanding their "H" back. If you listen, you will find this has something to do with Scottish pride, something to do with autonomy, and, in one case, something to do with building a giant parade costume.

Professor Irina Vasiliev of the State University of New York at Geneseo thinks our broadcast may create a new wave of "H Reinstallment."

I'm not sure we have that kind of power here at NPR, but just in case, I asked Ren, as she calls herself:

"Suppose I'm in a town called Fecksburg and once upon a time Fecksburg used to have a silent "h" at the end, and we Fecksburgians all agree we want our "H" back. What should we do?"

Listen to her answer.

Special thanks to Roger Payne, who just retired as executive secretary of the still active U.S. Board on Geographic Names, and to Professor Mark Monmonier of Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, whose books about maps and place names have kept me fascinated for decades. The Pittsburgh story is in his latest book, From Squaw Tit to Whorehouse Meadow,. Yup, in his dotage Professor Monmonier is getting kinda randy, but his new book isn't only about politically incorrect names; in fact, I'm working on another lead from his book. Coming up soon.

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