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Welcome to Pittsburg

October 28, 2016

Why did a major city change its name? Because the government said so. Why did it change it back? Because the city asked nicely. For 20 years.
See if you can figure out this riddle:
The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the oldest teams in Major League Baseball, joining the National League in 1887. The team has won five World Series championships, but only four of them were in Pittsburgh. And yet the team has never moved. How is this possible?
It’s because it won one of those baseball championships in Pittsburg, not Pittsburgh. For about 20 years, the city’s name dropped the H.
The late 19th century was a peak era for English spelling reform, a drive in the United States to simplify English spelling rules—and changing the very letters in words—to make the language easier to understand. Better English communication was a matter of great importance in the late 1800s—the nation was experiencing its biggest immigration numbers ever. (It’s also around this time that the “universal language” of Esperanto was conceived…and failed to catch on.)
In 1891, President Benjamin Harrison signed into law the recommendations of the United States Board on Geographic Names. Among the changes and fixes the Board saw fit (which were resisted here and there):

  • No more hyphenated town names
  • The “-borough” suffix should be shortened to “-boro”
  • The suffix “-burgh” dropped the “h” and became, simply, “-burg.”

The largest city in the U.S. affected by that last change was Pittsburgh, at the time the 13th most populous in the country. Named by British General John Forbes in the 1750s after British politician William Pitt, the “h” was added to reflect Forbes’ linguistic and cultural background—he was Scottish, where the “h” ending is correct (as in Edinburgh). When the city was incorporated in 1816, a printer’s error led to the “h” being dropped in many official documents, leading to both spellings being used. But by the 1890s, “Pittsburgh”—which is how it was spelled on the city charter—emerged as the most popular spelling.
Which meant the citizens were not happy when Harrison and the U.S.B.G.N. forced them to change the spelling over to Pittsburg. For the next 20 years, the Board resisted hundreds of complaints from Pittsburg(h) citizens, all from a drive to change it back spearheaded by Pennsylvania senator George T. Oliver. Finally, in 1911, probably because they were hired of hearing about it, the Board of Geographic names allowed Pittsburg to change its named back to Pittsburgh.

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