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Ask the Washingtonologist: Is it OK to Say You’re From DC If You’re Really From the Suburbs?

Our local know-it-all solves your capital city conundrums

Illustration by Jenny Rosenberg.

Dear Washingtonologist:

When I’m out of town and asked where I’m from, I typically say “Washington, DC.” A coworker told me this is a no-no because I actually live in Montgomery County. My colleague, by the way, lives in the District. Who’s right?

—Befuddled in Rockville

Dear Befuddled:
Back when your humble correspondent was just a young Washingtonian, he used to get very exercised about this sort of distinction. In those days, DC was hemorrhaging people, and the choice of whether to stay or go felt fraught with political implications. In the eyes of some District die-hards, a 301 or a 703 before your phone number meant you were in favor of white flight and white bread—and quite possibly were a Kenny G fan, too. Oddly, this contempt was sometimes strongest in the city’s most affluent areas, whose residents, we suspect, secretly thrilled at being able to claim oppression at the hands of those evil, fully-empowered-to-vote suburbanites. Your pal the Washingtonologist now recognizes how absurd the distinction was, particularly when migrants from DC were turning Prince George’s into one of the most dynamic majority-Black counties in the country.

At any rate, what was merely silly a few decades ago is downright ludicrous now—at a time when the city is gentrifying, the suburbs are a global melting pot, and a major reason why someone might pick Shirlington over Shaw is simply that they don’t feel like paying two-thirds of their paycheck for the privilege of walking to a pricey ramen shop. What your haughty coworker was really doing in dissing your Washington claims was pulling rank on you, suggesting that he was above you in the cultural pecking order and implying that you’re so ashamed of your Rockville Zip code that you lie about it to unsuspecting strangers at Disney World.

As he has aged, the Washingtonologist has come to take the broadest possible view of our region. When enemies slander us as a collection of feather-bedding bureaucratic leeches, they’re not talking just about people inside the District. And when our fans talk up Washington’s remarkably sophisticated, tolerant, and diverse population, they’re not excluding the vast majority of area residents who live in Maryland or Virginia. So let’s be generous with the word. All that said, another practical reason why your coworker is wrong is the question of what else you might tell someone in Kansas City who asks where you’re from. Answer “Rockville, Maryland,” and you’re liable to get a puzzled look—the next thing you know, you’ll be explaining the geography of the Red Line like some sort of geographical bore. He’s just trying to make small talk!

Still, there’s an easy way to be cartographically accurate when chatting up strangers far from home: You could say you’re from “greater Washington” or “the DC area.” It works for regional car ads, and it can work for you. But the Washingtonologist is also aware that real people don’t always talk so precisely. The hypothetical stranger who asks where you’re from probably isn’t seeking jurisdictional precision so much as spiritual essence: Where’s home? And for those of us who live here, the answer to that question is, with whatever degree of modification you choose, Washington. We’re glad to have you.

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This article appears in the August 2021 issue of Washingtonian.