Monday, January 27, 2014

Washington State or State of Washington?

If you are from Washington, you've probably experienced a conversation something like this:

    "Where are you from?"


    "Oh, D.C.?"

    "No, state."

How did this conundrum come to be?  And what should Washingtonians do about it? Well, the originally proposed name for the Washington Territory was "Columbia."

screen shot of the House Journal of January 25, 1853.  Mr. Stuart introduces “a bill to establish the territorial government of Columbia.”

That name was ultimately rejected because, get this, it might be confused with the District of Columbia. Congress decided to give the Territory a name honoring our first President (because naming the capital city after him was not enough), and so the Territory was named Washington, which could never be confused with the District of Columbia.

Screen shot of H.R. 348, a bill "to establish the Territorial Government of Washington."

As a quick side note, at least one Senator was bright enough to see that "Washington" was just as confusing as "Columbia" and offered up an amendment proposing the name "Washingtonia."

Screen shot of a proposed amendment that would "strike out the word Washington wherever it occurs, and insert in lieu thereof the word Washingtonia."

He lost.

Okay, so we’re stuck with a duplicative and confusing name, but how do we properly tell people which Washington we live in? Is it “Washington State,” or “State of Washington?”*

Why not see what Congress said, since they’ve been on a roll so far? In the federal statute that admitted Washington to the Union, Congress uses the phrase “State of Washington.” 25 Stat. 676.  In addition, the preamble to the Washington Constitution begins, “We, the people of the State of Washington." Wash. Const. preamble.  The Constitution refers to the state throughout as the “State of Washington,” with the phrase “Washington state” appearing only in the context of the phrase “Washington state building authority.”  The state flag also falls squarely into the "State of Washington" camp.

The flag of the state of Washington featuring the Seal of the State of Washington

That would seem to seal the deal, right? Well, not so fast. We’ve got a legislature of our own here in our Washington, and they might have something to say on the matter. The Constitution refers to the Legislature as the “legislature of the state of Washington,” Wash. Const. art II, § 1, but the legislature refers to itself as the “Washington State Legislature” on its website. They don’t seem committed to that formulation, though, as they use the phrases “Washington State” and “State of Washington” interchangeably. Compare Wash. Rev. Code § 1.20.010 (“The official flag of the state of Washington…”) with Wash. Rev. Code § 74.09.402 (“Improving the health of children in Washington state…”).

At least they care about the children.

So, Congress and the Washington Constitution say “State of Washington,” and our state legislature doesn’t seem to care. What do the people think? And by the people, I mean Google Books.

A Google Ngram showing that the phrase "Washington State" is more used in the Google Books database than "State of Washington"

This Ngram (if you don’t know what an Ngram is, check out this blog post) shows the usage over time of the phrases “Washington state,” “Washington State,” “state of Washington,” and “State of Washington” (Ngrams are case-sensitive). As you can see, “Washington State” trumps the competition, being used approximately six times as much as the other options. Now, this can potentially be explained by the fact that “Washington State” can also serve as an adjective (e.g., Washington State University, Washington State Attorney General, etc.), but still, it is interesting.

So, what should you call your state? Well, the authorities say “State of Washington,” so if you want to stick it to The Man, call it “Washington State.”  But “Washington State” is definitely the mainstream term these days, so if you want to be hip and retro, call it the “State of Washington.”

Or better yet, let’s just start calling it “American Columbia.”

* Hat tip to Professor Jane Winn for asking this question and inspiring this blog post.

P.S. The legislative history images used in this post were taken from the Library of Congress's webpage, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875.  The Congressional Record, along with its predecessors the Congressional Globe and the Annals of the Congress of the United States, are also available on HeinOnline.

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