On September 9, 1791, the three commissioners charged with surveying the nation’s new capital city met with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and officially named the federal city “Washington” to honor the United States’ first president. The city was within a ten-mile square they named the “Territory of Columbia.” The term “District” eventually superseded “Territory” in usage and in 1871 became part of the city’s legal name, setting up 145 years of tedious arguments about what, exactly, to call this place.
The Washingtonian stylebook instructs us to use the term “Washington” to describe the metropolitan area that sprang up around the nation’s new capital. That reliably ticks off people for whom the District line is some sort of sacred, moral boundary. (One local publication forbids its writers to call the District “Washington”–“Colloquially, usage of the term indicates that you don’t live here or are an out-of-touch employee of the federal government or national press corps,” it sniffs–even though, and I am just barely keeping my head from exploding here, “Washington” is PART OF THAT PUBLICATION’S NAME.)
We use the terms “District” and “DC” to refer to the District of Columbia itself. That ticks off people who use “DC” as shorthand for the region. Also it doesn’t help much with Google search results, which tend to be less prescriptive than map nerds and DC exceptionalists would like.
My feeling? Call this area what you like, save the “District” for the District, and for gosh sakes, capitalize the D! Happy 225th birthday, good ol’ what’s-your-name.