Well, D.C. statehood is back on the docket. It’s certainly a hot-button issue, as it has been for years. But even with all the contention still surrounding it, there’s one thing we can all agree on: The name proposed to give the would-be 51st state — the “State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth” — is ridiculous.
I say that with confidence, and for at least three reasons.
First, there’s no single entity called “Washington, D.C.” There’s just a city called Washington that’s located within another entity called the District of Columbia. The two happen to share the same borders. If Alexandria were part of the District of Columbia (as, indeed, it was until 1846) then residents of Alexandria would live in Alexandria, D.C. Calling an autonomous D.C. the “State of Washington, D.C.” makes no more sense than calling an independent Pittsburgh the “State of Pittsburgh, Pa.” Will future D.C. residents live in a state but not in a city? The mind boggles.
The proposed name seems to imply the creation of two new legal entities, namely the “State of Washington” (a moniker snatched already) existing within and sharing its borders with the “Douglass Commonwealth.” Why not stuff a “Province” in there while they’re at it and turn number 51 into a geopolitical nesting doll — just for kicks?
Which leads me to my second complaint: A D.C. state definitely shouldn’t be both a state and a commonwealth at the same time. Sure, there’s no legal difference between states and commonwealths, so there’s nothing to actually prevent this abomination of nomenclature. It just sounds wonky for the same reason that University of Maryland University College (now thankfully renamed “University of Maryland Global Campus”) sounded wonky. A state can’t be the “State of … Commonwealth” any more than a man can be the “Duke of Earl” (sorry, Gene Chandler).
And, finally, I have to ask: Why is there a comma? No other state name contains a punctuation mark. Even Hawaiʻi, having already been stripped of its monarchy and Anglican state church, was stripped of its rightful okina (a mark indicating a stop between vowel sounds). It’s even called the “State of Hawaii” in its own state constitution. If any state deserves a punctuation mark, it’s Hawaiʻi, not D.C.
So what should the new state — if it becomes one — be named? Certainly not the “State of Washington, Douglass Commonwealth,” an offense against both reason and good taste. When D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton introduced the first D.C. statehood bill in 1992, the proposed name was the perfectly acceptable “New Columbia,” but in 2016 the disastrous name change that occasioned this op-ed was implemented. In response to my inquiries, a member of Ms. Norton’s staff assured me that it was the delegate herself who came up with the current name, which even the staff member admitted is “a mouthful.”
In her defense, Ms. Norton made a valiant effort to ensure that citizens of the 51st state could continue to write “Washington, D.C.” as their return address. Plus, she managed to work Frederick Douglass into the name, and Frederick Douglass was the man.
One option would be to retain the name “Washington” for the city and call the new state the “Douglass Commonwealth.” Unfortunately, that would break with current naming conventions. Every other state’s official name is either “State of X” or “Commonwealth of X.” I’m afraid the best solution is for D.C. to pull up a chair at the cool kids’ table with Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Kentucky and Virginia and be henceforth known as the “Commonwealth of Douglass.”
“But wait,” I can hear you thinking, “wouldn’t the initials be C.D.? And wouldn’t that ruin everything?” The answers to those questions are “No” and “No.” The commonwealth’s name would be “Douglass,” so its two-letter postal abbreviation would properly start with a “D.” From there, I see no reason why the second letter shouldn’t be “C.” It’s not as if there’s any danger of mixing it up with Delaware (DE). I also see no reason why people shouldn’t refer to the new state colloquially as the “Douglass Commonwealth.” “City of New York” and “New York City” are interchangeable, so why not “Commonwealth of Douglass” and “Douglass Commonwealth”?
If I had my way, we’d whittle the District of Columbia down to an uninhabited rump like Vatican City and retrocede everything else to Maryland. Sadly, nobody else seems to want that. And though 86% of D.C. voters backed statehood in a 2016 referendum, it doesn’t look like we’ll be adding a 51st star to the flag anytime soon either. A GOP filibuster seems set to sink D.C. statehood yet again.
The news isn’t all bad for statehood proponents, though. This latest setback will give them time to stop and reconsider what they’re doing to themselves — sparing millions of Washingtonians (Douglassites?) from the burden of that truly awful name.
• Grayson Quay is a Young Voices contributor who lived in Northeast D.C. for two years before relocating to Arlington, Va.