October
23rd 2008
Question of the day

Posted under: American history, weirdness

Who, other than John McCain, still pronounces the word “Washington” as “Warshington?”  Where does this pronunciation come from?  My 97-year old grandfather who died in February pronounced it that way, but otherwise I hadn’t heard it for years until this general election campaign.

Has anyone else noticed this?  (Please note:  this is not an invitation to dump on McCain as old in the comments.  He can’t help that–he tried to become President in 2000 when he was eight years younger, and I defy any of you anti-McCain people this year to argue that he would have done as poorly or worse than George W. Bush.  I don’t have any brief with his age, just with his policies.)  I’m simply wondering if the “Warshington” pronunciation is due to a regional dialect, or generation, or perhaps something else.  Apparently, I’m not the first person to wonder about this–inquiring minds want to know, but the answers proposed at those sites devolve into political attacks.  The Linguist says it’s a midwestern thing–were McCain’s parents midwesterners?  (For the record, my grandfather was, but so am I originally and I’ve never said “Warshington.”)  From what I understand, McCain had the typical Navy brat upbringing all over the place, and only moved to Arizona as an adult.  A native Washingtonian says that it’s the local pronunciation by the hometown crowd.  He notes that McCain attended Episcopal High across the river from D.C. as a teenager, and says that “‘Warshington’ is merely the hometown version of ‘Noo Yawk’ or ‘Missourah.’”

30 Comments »

30 Responses to “Question of the day”

  1. Erica on 23 Oct 2008 at 1:00 pm #

    My grandparents (all from New York) pronounce it Washington. I therefore think it’s more related to regional dialect than generation.

    I grew up in Cincinnati and I think people said Washington there. When I lived in Southern Indiana, that was how it was pronounced — Warshington. (They also called motorcycles “motor-sickles”, which still makes me laugh. One guy was always talking about taking his sickle for a ride, which was incredibly confusing to me for months.)

  2. Historiann on 23 Oct 2008 at 1:11 pm #

    Taking a “sickle for a ride” sounds like an Amish kink!

  3. Martha on 23 Oct 2008 at 1:21 pm #

    My mom (a native of San Francisco, living in Arizona since childhood) says “Warshington,” “warsh,” and “warshing machine.” Neither Californians nor Arizonans generally say it that way, though.

    I don’t think it is a midwestern thing — in ten years in Kansas, I don’t think I ever heard anyone pronounce it that way.

  4. mary on 23 Oct 2008 at 1:56 pm #

    Minnesota has its quirky pronunciations-but growing up there I never heard it pronounced that way.

    I think Erica may be right when she says it could be an Indiana thing–my parents good friends who are from Indiana say “Warshington.”

  5. Indyanna on 23 Oct 2008 at 3:10 pm #

    Then there’s that old t.v. commercial for the Wausau Insurance Co., where the sales rep, straight off the plane from Wisconsin, gets into a New York City cab at Laguardia. The Goth(am) driver wants to pronounce it as WAR-saw, as in (he thinks) the capital of Poland, where he assumes his fare is from. So maybe it’s a MilWARkee thing? It’s no Indyanna thing, that’s for sure. :]

  6. Roxie on 23 Oct 2008 at 3:26 pm #

    It may not be an Indyanna thing, but Hoosier-born Moose insists that it is a southern Indiana thing. She was born and raised in New Albany, right across the Ohio River from Louisville, and her grandmother always said “warsh” and “Warshington.” She also said “paints” instead of “pants” (so Moose grew up thinking she should “warsh her paints” in order to be presentable in polite society) and “carn” instead of “corn.” Her family moved north when she was eleven, and she worked assiduously to erase every trace of an accent that other kids mocked as hick-sounding. Oh, vicious schoolyard brats! Today, she sounds like every I’m-from-nowhere voice you ever heard on the teevee news.

  7. Flavia on 23 Oct 2008 at 3:57 pm #

    I grew up in Washington State, and I had a grade-school teacher (this would have been in the mid-80s) who pronounced it Warshington. I always assumed she was from out of state, but later learned that that wasn’t so; can’t imagine where her pronunciation came from.

    I do hate “Warshington,” though I hear and am irritated by the trisyllabic pronunciation of Oregon (or-eh-gone) much more often. Out west, we can only spare the two syllables!

  8. Bing on 23 Oct 2008 at 6:04 pm #

    St. Louisians have a strange inability to pronounce the words “wash” and “forty-four”: “warsh” and “farty-far.” I’m not kidding. But it’s a known local pronunciation.

    HJ

  9. Sisyphus on 23 Oct 2008 at 6:12 pm #

    My parents are both from Indiana and grew up saying “warsh,” as in “You go warsh that in the crick.” As soon as they left they, like Roxie says, worked to eradicate any of their local pronunciation peculiarities and avoid mockery.

    My dad still says “Tuesdee” instead of “Tuesday” (or any other day of the week) and all of their vowels sound very flat, like they’re coming out of gritted teeth (“yer” for “your” or any rounded vowels etc.) So maybe it’s a byproduct of McCain’s seeming intense anger and inability to talk about “That One” without gritting his teeth in rage? ;)

  10. Dykester on 23 Oct 2008 at 6:47 pm #

    My father (79) grew up in Little Washington, PA, which he pronounced “Little Warshington”. It’s a very common regional dialect in Southwestern PA. It’s likely used more by blue collar workers than by middle or upper class folks. None of my friends from college who were raised by college graduates ever used that pronunciation, but among those of us blue collar kids, all our parents used it.

  11. K.N. on 23 Oct 2008 at 6:47 pm #

    The last time I heard “Warshington” was in the documentary “The Fog of War.” Former SecDef Robert McNamara said it constantly, and it was so pronounced that my students found it a bit jarring. He was a born and bred Californian. The generational angle might work, but I’m also wondering if this could be a military thing.

  12. The History Enthusiast on 23 Oct 2008 at 7:28 pm #

    I’ve lived in Washington State, Colorado, Kansas, Virginia, and Missouri. The only place I’ve heard that pronunciation is from my dad’s relatives living in St. Louis who grew up in rural Missouri (the part that considers itself Southern). So, I think it could well be a Missouri-southern Illinois-southern Indiana thing.

    My other side of the family (mom’s side) is from Minnesota, and they all think that my dad’s side is weird because of this and other strange pronunciations.

  13. Historiann on 23 Oct 2008 at 7:46 pm #

    Thanks for all of your replies–it looks like it might be a rural or small-town Ohio River Valley/central Mississippi Valley kind of thing. (That’s a large swath of the country, stretching West from SW Pennsylvania, as Dykster notes, all the way to Southern Indiana and Illinois, to Iowa and Missouri. And, Wikipedia (for what it’s worth) says that McCain’s parents John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta McCain grew up (respectively) in Council Bluffs, Iowa and Muskogee, Oklahoma. So, I’ll go along with it being a rural/small-town midwestern thing.

    K.N. raises an interesting possibility in suggesting that it may be a military thing. McCain is after all third-generation Navy. Did a lot of midwestern guys born in the first half of the twentieth century go into the Navy at some point? I never think of the Navy as being a big thing in the midwest, but I could be wrong…maybe growing up on the banks of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers gives boys that wanderlust to follow the rivers and see where they take them…?

  14. ortho stice on 23 Oct 2008 at 7:53 pm #

    Historiann, please stop picking on John. He has, after all, received the endorsement of Al-Qaeda.

  15. Mother of ALL on 23 Oct 2008 at 8:11 pm #

    You should know that the senior member of my family pronounces it the same as JM. He also pronounces Colorado as coloRADo instead of coloRODo. Kinda like that filet mignon thing.

  16. Historiann on 23 Oct 2008 at 8:49 pm #

    Col-uh-rad-oh (with the “rad” rhyming with “bad”) is how the locals say it! Only the tourists say Col-o-Rah-do. (Kind of like Nev-adda and Nev-ah-dah.)

  17. Geoff on 23 Oct 2008 at 10:30 pm #

    My grandfather (born in Texas in 1920) says “warsh” for “wash” — don’t know about “Washington.”

    My lingering Texas-ism is the inability to say “oil,” which comes out much more like “ole.”

  18. Geoff on 23 Oct 2008 at 10:31 pm #

    BTW, grandad’s folks were from Ohio before moving to Texas so maybe he picked it up from them.

  19. James Stripes on 24 Oct 2008 at 12:07 am #

    I know a few that are native to Washington state who both criticize that pronunciation and (unable to hear their own voice) employ it. A very subtle R in Washington is more common than one might expect. In my observation, it seems to be a habit mostly within a certain social class, generally the bottom quintile economically. The pronunciation is tied neither to income, nor level of educational attainment, but may correspond to these factors as family averages and parentage. Within my city, when I hear the R, the speaker usually hails from one of a handful of particular neighborhoods.

  20. James Stripes on 24 Oct 2008 at 12:11 am #

    How about those that call a refrigerator an ice box? In your living room, do you sit on a sofa, coach, or davenport?

  21. bittergrrl on 24 Oct 2008 at 4:44 am #

    May grandmother said it, she was from Minnesota, but went to college in Iowa.

    My husbands grandmother says it, but she has never left the city of Virginia Beach, VA, and her family has lived there for generations.

    I also had an elementary school teacher who said it, and I think she was originally from Missouri.

    It may be a combination age and region.

  22. Delilah Boyd on 24 Oct 2008 at 5:34 am #

    My husband, born in Pitsfield, IL, has always pronounced it “Warshington.”

    Even though he grew up in England and Belgium, he never lost that particular pronunciation quirk (probably because of his parents).

    I think you’re correct about that St. Louis/ Mississippi River Valley association.

  23. Nikki on 24 Oct 2008 at 6:11 am #

    Long time lurker here! I grew up in Baltimore and Warshington is the way the natives pronounced it, along with zink for sink. Also–a true Baltimorean pronounces it as Baldimore, with a “d” sound.

  24. blue epiphany on 24 Oct 2008 at 6:24 am #

    Another long time lurker. I’m from southern Indiana (far southern – the Evansville area, almost in Kentuckyr), and I say “Warshington,” as do all my family members. Strange; I hadn’t realized I say it that way.

  25. Historiann on 24 Oct 2008 at 7:11 am #

    James, it’s funny that you mention “davenport” and “icebox.” My 97-year old grandfather also used those terms, too!

    Welcome Nikki and blue ephiphany, and thanks for commenting–I hope you’ll be back to comment again. Nikki, I lived in Baltimore for one year about 15 years ago, and loved it. (I lived near Cross St. market, in a neighborhood that at the time was semi-gentrified and mostly not-so-much. Let’s just say that there was more Formstone on my street than red brick.) I also have stories of its ineffable weirdness to last me the rest of my life! People who haven’t lived there won’t understand how much sense it makes that John Waters lives there…

  26. Tom on 24 Oct 2008 at 7:19 am #

    I tell a story every time I teach a language class about how may parents explicitly taught me not to say “warsh.” (I grew up in Northwestern Ohio.) Like pronouncing “creek” as “crick” (and maybe a few other things) I think this pronunciation is very widespread across the country, but I usually associate it with “rural” as opposed to “urban” speech habits. Within Washington itself (city or state) other factors may come into play (specifically, a lack of necessary connection between “wash” and “Washington” in people’s minds), but otherwise, I’d expect most “warsh”-sayers have a rural background, in their own upbringing or their parents’.

  27. Indyanna on 24 Oct 2008 at 1:40 pm #

    Yuh know, now that you mention it, Tom Wolfe has that riff in the Right Stuff where one single identifiable military flyboy who was doing “flight test” about the time they picked the original astronauts instead went into commercial flight, and pretty much invented the syrupy tone and rhetorical style by which the unseen pilot up front comes on the intercom and beguiles the passengers about gettin’ them “…over to Chicago this mornin’.” So maybe some charismatic flight instructor at Annapolis years ago DID insert the “R” into the old commander-in-chief’s last name? Or maybe it was even Admiral Vernon, on the ill-fated Cartagena expedition in 1741, on which voyage Lawrence Warshington took his death of cold?

  28. Maria Evans on 27 Oct 2008 at 9:14 pm #

    I’m a 5th generation rural NE Missourian, and despite 25 years of formal education, it will always be “warsh” to me. I decided not to worry about it since back in the 70′s, when as a college student I got to escort Vincent Price around town when he came to Kirksville, MO for one-man performance. He said “warsh” too! (But I also found out he was originally from St. Louis!)

  29. In-OGGER-ation? Let’s not drink to that. : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present on 21 Jan 2009 at 3:15 pm #

    [...] Twice today on public radio on my drive to work, I heard one local reporter and one national reporter pronounce the words “inaugurate” and “inauguration”  as “inOGGERate” and “inOGGERation.”  Nog season is over, the language mangler in chief has gone home to Crawford, and we didn’t just inAUGurate the guy who said “WARSHingon.”  [...]

  30. tootsies on 20 Mar 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    I have an old buddy who always says “Warshington”. Like when we traveled to “Warshington DC” and Seattle, “Warshington”. He would always say “warsh” as well… Like “Go warsh your hands” and “warshing machine”

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