News & Politics

Who Should Be Called a “Washingtonian”?

Some people think we should be DC-ers instead.

Illustration by Niky Chopra.

Just when you thought Washington partisanship couldn’t get more contentious, here comes yet another wedge: the seemingly innocuous term “Washingtonian.”

On the left—literally, if you’re looking at a map—are the West Coast Washingtonians. On the right—again, we’re just talking about the map here; don’t freak out!—are Washingtonians of the DC variety. Why, certain state-focused people carp, must those annoying city folks refer to themselves as Washingtonians?

Just look at Twitter, where irritable amateur linguists regularly share complaints. Here are just a few, some lightly edited for clarity:

  • “Don’t call yourself a Washingtonian. That’s people from Washington state, not DC.”
  • “To call DC-ers ‘Washingtonian’ is a step too far. Stop the steal of my state’s identity into a shitty non state.”
  • “ ‘Washingtonian’ is trending because that’s what people in DC call themselves, when in Washington state we’ve been calling ourselves Washingtonians forever now?? Like pick a new name bitch lmaooo.”
  • “I’m all for DC statehood but can we give it and its citizens a new name? Not willing to share Washingtonian or explain which Washington I’m from (the real one from the wild wild west).”
  • “Folks from DC refer to themselves as DC-ites, not Washingtonians. I see ‘Washingtonian’ and think Washington state. So do most people actually from DC, and Washington state for that matter.”

That last assertion is easily debunked: People from DC decidedly do not refer to themselves as DC-ites—or DC-vers, DC-vians, or any other absurd variation thereof. But what of the claim that Washington state has some kind of broader ownership of “Washingtonian”? Conversations with several historians confirm that this idea is not supported by recorded history. Our Washington was named in 1791, while the Territory of Washington—the precursor to the state—wasn’t formed until 1853. “My immediate response is that we got it first, so they can just suck it up,” says historian Jane Levey of the DC History Center. “I mean, come on.”

Actually, this whole debate could have been averted were it not for an amusing bit of congressional interference. When the formation of the Territory of Washington was being debated in Congress, the name Columbia was initially proposed. But Congress—with typical wisdom and foresight—figured that would prove confusing, given the already existing District of Columbia. Their solution? Call it Washington instead.

The history of the term “Washingtonian” is harder to trace, but there’s no doubt which coast snagged it first. Historian and professor Adam Costanzo—author of the book George Washington’s Washington, about the city’s beginnings—points to a letter he dug up that was written to a Philadelphia newspaper by a Washington resident. It closed with a polite sign-off: “I am, Gentlemen, yours, a Washingtonian.” The date? 1794. Beat that, Seattle.

We got ‘Washingtonian’ first, so they can just suck it up. I mean, come on.

Still, it’s easy to empathize with those other Washingtonians, forced as they are to share a demonym with their more prominent cousin across the country. Just ask Washington State University professor Peter Boag, who specializes in the history of the Pacific Northwest and often finds himself miffed at having to add “state” to “Washington.” “While it is second nature to put that in,” he says, “typically a thought runs through my mind of Why the hell do I do this? I mean, I know why. But it is annoying. You don’t say, you know, ‘California state.’ ”

Asked what term he’d use for us East Coast Washingtonians, Boag takes a beat to consider. “Well, the people in the Capitol I think are oftentimes crazy,” he says with a laugh. “But the people who live in the city? You know, what do I call them? Residents of Washington, DC, probably. I don’t think I’ve ever referred to them as Washingtonians.” Boag, it should be noted, lives in Vancouver. No, not that Vancouver—the other one, in Washington state.

This issue especially plagues a certain rare subspecies of DC resident: the Washingtonian Washingtonian. One of these double W’s is Natalie Fertig, who grew up in a place called Hockinson, Washington, and now works here as a reporter for Politico. Fertig says she doesn’t have any problem with people in DC using the term “Washingtonian,” but she is irked by another issue: the unthinking use of “Washington” to refer to DC. “A lot of people from Washington state feel this viscerally because you grew up turning on the nightly news, and the local news talks about Washington, Washington, Washington—Washington state. And then on the national news they talk about Washington, Washington, Washington, and they mean the capital city of America. I don’t begrudge a local news organization in DC referring to something as Washington, but when it’s a national news organization, or people are talking to a broader group and saying Washington as if there isn’t this other place that has, like, 8 million people living in it, that seems sort of narrow-minded and egotistical. Like, we exist too!”

That sentiment is no doubt shared by residents of the many other Washingtons, located in places such as Iowa, Louisiana, and Kansas. And let’s not forget Washington, Virginia, often called Little Washington to distinguish it from its much bigger neighbor. A sign in town calls it “the first Washington of all,” and while that claim is disputed, the place’s history does stretch back to the 18th century. What message does Little Washington mayor Joe Whitedhave for everyone debating ownership of “Washingtonian”? “I would just say, you know, welcome to the Washington family.”

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Politics and Culture Editor

Rob Brunner grew up in DC and moved back in 2017 to join Washingtonian. Previously, he was an editor and writer at Fast Company and other publications. He lives with his family in Chevy Chase DC.