Ask the Washingtonologist: What Is the Proper Washingtonian Way to Refer to the Airport That Sits Right Across the Potomac From Downtown DC?

Illustration by Jenny Rosenberg.

What is the proper Washingtonian way to refer to the airport that sits right across the Potomac from downtown DC? Someone told me you can tell true locals from newcomers by whether they say “Reagan” or “National.”

—Foggy Flyer

Dear Foggy:

The controversy you’re referencing goes back a couple decades. In the 1990s, when the Republicans were out of the White House for the first time in years, party cheerleaders went on a campaign to rename things after Ronald Reagan. Though the Washington area wasn’t quite as blue in those days, it was still not a place dense with local officials looking to celebrate the 40th President. Fortunately for the Reagan brigade, this is a region dense with buildings that aren’t under the control of the locals. In the District, the GOP-run Congress put the Gipper’s name on a vast new Pennsylvania Avenue office building. And across the river, they turned their attention to what was known as National Airport.

Despite the opposition of regional governments—as well as the labor activists indignant about naming an airport after the guy who had busted the air-traffic controllers—a renaming measure passed with bipartisan support and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Not all of the opposition was partisan: Some people just thought it was tacky and banana-republic-ish to name things after a man who was, after all, still alive.

But just because “Reagan” was the legal name didn’t mean people had to use it. Local governments refused to tap their own budgets to update signage for the rebranding. A Utah GOP congressman pitched a fit when the new name didn’t appear fast enough on road markers. One of NoVa’s Democratic Congress members vowed to undo the change if his party returned to the majority. And many locals carried out their own defiance, continuing to use the old name—in part because of politics but also because people tend to stick with familiar lingo. (When was the last time you heard someone call the Bay Bridge the William Preston Lane Jr. Memorial Bridge?)

So it’s true that, for some years, the nomenclature did distinguish newbies from old-timers. But the Washingtonologist suspects even that was more about habit than political identity. And eventually, the resistance weakened. Every time you heard a flight attendant announce a departure for Reagan, and every time you saw one of the highway arrows directing you to Reagan (yes, they were eventually updated), the name became a little more fixed. Even your humble correspondent, who bathes in local tradition like a half-smoke in a tepid chafing dish, finds himself using the R-word from time to time. In the end, we were swayed in part because the old designation, just plain National, was pretty lame. It’s not like they took some beloved local hero’s name off the place.

But if you’re determined to avoid the congressionally imposed name of the GOP’s patron saint, there’s still an easy out: Just say DCA. It may not make you sound like more of a local, but it will at least make you sound like a sophisticated jet-setter.

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