An American Story: Give Me Back My 'H!' : Krulwich Wonders... 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.
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An American Story: Give Me Back My 'H!'

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

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

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now it is hard to think of housewife without the letter H, but there are other words where H seems to have no purpose. Why do they have an H in when? You can't hear it. You don't need it. Same with why and with many other words. But there is no way to get rid of the H. Even the president of the United States could not do it when he tried. Here's some history from NPR's Robert Krulwich.

ROBERT KRULWICH: Back in the late 1800s if you bought a bunch of maps, particularly maps of the American West, very often you would have a problem, says geographer Mark Monmonier.

Professor MARK MONMONIER (Professor of Geography, Syracuse University): Well, the problem was multiple names for the same feature.

(Soundbite of harmonica)

KRULWICH: So now I'm just make this up, but imagine a map-maker riding along somewhere out in the West and he's, you know, taking notes, drawing sketches and he happens to pass, say, a beautiful mountain. So he says, Darlin', that mountain over there is so purty(ph), it kind of reminds me of you.

Unidentified Woman: (As Daisy May) Mmm.

KRULWICH: So, I'm going to call it Daisy May Hill.

Unidentified Woman: (As Daisy May) Ooohh!

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Now let's jump ahead a year or two and a different map-maker is wandering by the very same beautiful mountain and he might say, Darling, that mountain over there is so fantastically beautiful I'm going to call it Rebecca's Peak...

(Soundbite of gasp)

KRULWICH: ...after you.

Unidentified Woman #2: (As Rebecca) Oooh!

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: So now the same mountain has two different names on two different maps. Now who decides? Is it Daisy May Hill or is it Rebecca's Peak? This was a common problem says government geographer Roger Payne.

Mr. ROGER PAYNE (Former Executive Secretary, U.S. Board of Geographic Names): And hence the Board on Geographic Names, an authority to make such a decision.

KRULWICH: In 1890, President Benjamin Harrison announced that henceforth the federal government will decide which names appear on official U.S. maps. And then he went much, much further. From now on, he said, there will be rules, government rules about names. And there were a bunch of them says State University of New York geographer Irina Vasiliev.

Professor IRINA VASILIEV (Professor of Geography, State University of New York at Geneseo): Well, they were trying to standardize.

KRULWICH: For example, in 1891, the board announced that towns like Pittsburgh, Plattsburgh, Newburgh, Williamsburgh - all of them with silent H's at the end. We don't hear those H's said the government, so we don't need those H's. The H's, they'll go.

Prof. VASILIEV: They all disappeared. They were taken off.

KRULWICH: This was like a de-H-ification?

Prof. VASILIEV: Yes. No more H's.

KRULWICH: Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Vicksburg, Louisburg, Parkersburg, Mecklenburg - scores of American cities suddenly lost their H's in part because the U.S. Post Office argued that an extra H costs money.

Prof. MONMONIER: Conceivably there would be some actual cost advantage in spelling a name with one less letter.

KRULWICH: Now why exactly dropping an H would save anybody money, geographer Mark Monmonier doesn't know. But it does turn out that H's do have value, emotional value.

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: Particularly if you happen to be of Irish or Scottish descent like our friend Ron Thompson(ph), because it turns out burgh is pronounced - how do you pronounce it?

Mr. RON THOMPSON: Not burg.

KRULWICH: Uh-huh, then what is it?

Mr. THOMPSON: Burgh.

KRULWICH: Burgh is a Scot-Irish root for city and the Scot and Irish settlers who created Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they liked their H cause it reminded them of the old country. When, however, their H was removed...

(Soundbite of record scratching)

KRULWICH: Burg with no H means castle or town from...

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (German spoken)

KRULWICH: ...the German.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (German spoken)

KRULWICH: So it's no surprise that when Pittsburgh lost its H, Scottish and Irish Pittsburghians were not at all pleased.

Prof. VASILIEV: Exactly, because they became Germans. It's not, you know, nobody really likes that idea. You know, here's our place. It was Fort Pitt. We made it grow. It's a great, wonderful place now and you're taking away our H? Who the hell are you?

KRULWICH: I don't think you can say that on the radio.

Prof. VASILIEV: Okay. Who the heck are you?

KRULWICH: That's much better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. VASILIEV: Sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: So a kind of civil war began over the letter H. Pittsburgh, refusing to go along, and Washington - well, the board in Washington had only limited power.

Mr. PAYNE: The board's legal authority extends only to departments and agencies of the federal government.

KRULWICH: So on federal maps Pittsburgh went H-less, but at home...

Prof. VASILIEV: The newspaper, The Pittsburgh Gazette still kept its H. The Pittsburgh Stock Exchange had its H. The University of Pittsburgh still kept its H. So it was just the post office.

KRULWICH: And the post office, in the end, was not enough. It took Pittsburgh 20 years, but eventually, says Roger Payne, in July of 1911...

Mr. PAYNE: The board issued a statement, a very terse statement indicating that the H could be restored to the burghs if, quote, “there are compelling reasons to do so.”

KRULWICH: Well, our reason, said Pittsburgh, is we just want it back, which was reason enough.

Prof. VASILIEV: Then the other places started saying, you know, we want our H back too so give it to us.

KRULWICH: So slowly but surely for more than 100 years now, towns have been reacquiring their H's. Most recently in 1991, after 100 years without an H, the town of Petersburgh, New York, while planning a bi-centennial parade, thought what about us. Peter Shapauch(ph) was the town historian.

Mr. PETER SHAPAUCH (Town Historian, Petersburgh, New York): Well, we just had a vote at the town meeting. We proposed it.

KRULWICH: Who's we?

Mr. SHAPAUCH: Just all the people in the town.

KRULWICH: And so at the bicentennial parade at the very end, instead of a high school marching band, they finished with a giant, over-sized H.

Mr. SHAPAUCH: You would have seen an H walking down the street.

KRULWICH: And now their H is back.

Prof. VASILIEV: So you know what's going to happen? We're going to run this story and all of the sudden all these places that used to have H's are going to petition...

KRULWICH: Wouldn't that be (unintelligible).

Prof. VASILIEV: ...for their H's back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. VASILIEV: That would be wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

KRULWICH: And just so you know, there is still a Pittsburg in New Hampshire that does not have an H yet. Also without H's: Pittsburg, North Carolina; Pittsburg, Oklahoma; Pittsburg, Texas; Pittsburg, Kansas; Pittsburg, California.

Prof. VASILIEV: Yes, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Go to npr.org and you can find pod casts of all the stories by Robert Krulwich with an H.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPRH News. With Renee Montagne in Afghanistan, I'm Steve Inskeep.

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