News & Politics

Loathsome Words About Washington

Washington, the District, the DMV, "This Town"--how should we refer to this place?

This building is in Washington. It's also in the District. Discuss. (Via iStock.)

My years at the magazine have ingrained in me the house style—long predating my tenure—of using Washington to denote the entire Washington, DC, area, including Maryland and Virginia, and reserving DC and the District for the District of Columbia proper. It makes sense as a way for a print publication whose combined suburban readership significantly outnumbers its District audience to avoid appearing DC-centric. (DC does seem to be taking hold, however, among younger residents as a catchall for both city and region. Then again, lots of them live in the District and tend to be DC-centric–as do many of our online readers. That’s not a judgment, just a fact of millennial urban life.)

Similarly, I’m careful about inside the Beltway. On the one hand, it’s expedient shorthand for the nation’s power center; on the other, it’s sometimes used more loosely to apply to anything between that and merely Washington-related. Because many of our readers actually live outside the Beltway, it’s not a bad idea to scrutinize a term like this so as not to alienate a valued demographic for the sake of an easy cliché.

Here are five other Washington-related terms, macro and micro, that are worth thinking twice about:

1. DMV. Would it have killed the inventors of this nickname—irritatingly identical to the abbreviation for Department of Motor Vehicles—to have picked, oh, I don’t know, DVM instead? Surely far more people envision waiting in endless lines to register a car than, hearing the latter, would be distracted by “doctor of veterinary medicine.”

2. Sleepy Southern town. Yes, Washington was that at one time. But find a fresher way to say it. In fact, I don’t love calling Washington a “town” of any kind. I get that it’s an idiom (engendering the insider phrase this town, in turn engendering Mark Leibovich’s well-known book of that name, in turn engendering even more people using this town as a wink to the book title . . . ), but Washington is a city.

3. Metro area. I loathe this for three reasons. First, metro—short for metropolitan, of course—is simply unnecessary. I can’t think of an instance in which area isn’t preferable just by virtue of concision. Second, metro area is the language of radio traffic and weather reporters (with all due respect to radio traffic and weather reporters), not necessarily of clean writing. Third, echoes of capital-M Metro these days are probably unwelcome to most Washingtonians.

Speaking of transportation (and traffic reporters) . . .

4. Inner and outer loop. Does anyone else have to stop and think which loop of the Beltway is the inner and which is the outer? The one going toward Tysons when I’m driving from Bethesda or the other way around? Okay, I know the outer one goes clockwise, right? Wait, or . . . ? Meanwhile, I’m perilously close to not avoiding those accident rubberneckers on the inner (or outer) loop as I puzzle this out. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the nomenclature, I don’t have a better way of expressing it, and it has virtually nothing to do with writing. This is just a personal cry for help.

Finally, a hyper-local peeve:

5. Misspelling Loudoun County. It’s not Loudon.

Senior Managing Editor

Bill O’Sullivan is senior managing editor; from 1999 to 2007, he was a features editor. In another lifetime, he was assistant managing editor. Somewhere in the middle, he was managing editor of Common Boundary magazine and senior editor at the Center for Public Integrity. His personal essays have been cited three times among the notable essays of the year in The Best American Essays. He teaches at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda.