Our unpunctuated locales

It’s not known whether the bullet holes and handmade apostrophe were authored by the same person, but whoever edited the sign was not on target in the eyes of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which lined up all but five place-name apostrophes before its own brand of firing squad. (Jesse Skoubo | Albany Democrat-Herald)

The sign jumped out at me through the fog, looming suddenly on the side of the road: Marys Peak Recreation Area.

It was everything a sign ought to be: clear, concise, unambiguous.

It told me everything I needed to know: I wanted to go to Marys Peak, and here was the road that could get me there.

But something was missing.

The apostrophe.

If the mountain was named after Mary, why wasn’t it called Mary’s Peak? Who stole Mary’s apostrophe, and why?

I wanted to know, and I decided to find out.

So I started doing a little digging — and learned that Mary wasn’t the only one whose apostrophe had gone AWOL. 

From Abes to Zims

A look through “Oregon Geographic Names,” Lewis A. and Lewis L. McArthur’s authoritative 1,000-page compendium of information on 6,252 place names, turned up no fewer than 150 missing apostrophes between Abes Mountain and Zims Point.

Abe, in case you’re interested, was Abraham Wilson, a packer for the Forest Service who worked the area around Red Butte in Douglas County in the 1920s. Zim was Hans Zimmerman, a trapper who settled near Klamath County’s Crescent Lake in the early 1900s.

And what about Mary? Well, Mary, like her missing apostrophe, is a bit of a mystery.

“Oregon Geographic Names” states that Marys Peak — the highest point in the Oregon Coast Range, known as Chintimini to the local Indians — got its modern name from the Marys River, which flows past the mountain on its way to the Willamette. But there are at least two conflicting stories about how the river got its name.

One claims that Adam E. Wimple, a settler from New York, named the place after his sister back home. (In 1852, coincidentally, he was hanged for the murder of his young wife, also named Mary, who had attacked him with a pistol.)

The other gives the honor to Mary Lloyd, who crossed the Oregon Trail with her family in 1845 and settled near Monroe in ’46. She is said to have been the first white woman to have crossed the river that bears — or at least shares — her name.

Abe, Zim and Mary (take your choice of which Mary), all deprived of their rightful place in history by the theft of their apostrophes.

But why?

I decided to go to the source.

‘Never owned the peak’

I tracked down Lewis L. McArthur by telephone at his home in Portland.

Now in his mid-90s, McArthur is the dean of Oregon geographers. His father, Lewis A. “Tam” McArthur, published the first edition of “Oregon Geographic Names” in 1928. After Tam’s death, Lewis L. took over the family franchise, publishing the fourth edition of “Oregon Geographic Names” in 1974 and three more since. He is now collaborating with his daughter Mary McArthur on the eighth edition, scheduled for publication late this year.

If anyone would know what happened to the apostrophe in Marys Peak, I figured, it was Lewis L. McArthur.

The answer, he said, was simple: It was never there.

“Mary never owned the peak,” McArthur said. “It was named for her, but it never belonged to her.”

The same is true for most geographic features that bear people’s names, he said, such as Knox Butte near Albany. The hill was named for James Knox, a cousin of U.S. President James Knox Polk who emigrated to Oregon in 1845, but Knox never owned the hill.

“It’s a geographic convenience, a mapping convenience,” McArthur said.

There’s only one place name in the whole state, McArthur said, that includes a possessive apostrophe: Clark’s Mountain, a high point on Tillamook Head climbed by explorer William Clark in 1806 on his way to examine a beached whale.

And it’s not just an Oregon thing. The whole country is littered with unpunctuated place names. Pikes Peak in Colorado, Harpers Ferry in West Virginia, Clingmans Dome in Tennessee — the list goes on and on.

In fact, there are only five place names in the entire nation that include the possessive apostrophe: Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.; Ike’s Point, N.J.; John E’s Pond, R.I.; Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Ariz.; and Clark’s Mountain, Ore.

What’s going on here?

Again, I went to the source.

Since 1890, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names has been the official arbiter of American place names, and from the very beginning it has discouraged the possessive form — an apostrophe followed by the letter s.

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The precise reason for this policy decision has been lost to history, but the board’s editorial guidelines are clear.

“Apostrophes suggesting possession or association are not to be used within the body of a proper name (Henrys Fork, not Henry’s Fork),” the board declares.

Then it offers this rationale:

“The word or words that form a geographic name change their connotative function and together become a single denotative unit. They change from words having specific dictionary meaning to fixed labels used to refer to geographic entities. The need to imply possession or association no longer exists.”


Really, said Jennifer Runyon, a senior researcher for the board.

“It’s ingrained in us from the first day on the job that geographic names belong to all the people,” she said. “The feeling is that owners come and go, but names are supposed to stand the test of time.”

Maybe omit the S?

Rubbish, counters John Richards, a retired newspaperman who founded the Apostrophe Protection Society in the United Kingdom in 2001.

“We have the same problem in the UK,” he wrote in response to an email query. “The apostrophe does not imply only possession, but includes FOR and OF. We have St. Paul’s Cathedral and St. James’s Palace in London, but neither are owned by a saint.”

As the society explains on its website (www.apostrophe.org.uk), the apostrophe denotes possession in a grammatical sense. The captain’s parking space in a golf club parking lot doesn’t belong to the captain in the sense of legal ownership. Rather, it’s the parking space of or for the captain.

“‘That car’s colour is too bright’ is another example. The car doesn’t own the colour,” Richards added.

“I believe that if the apostrophe isn’t wanted in a place name, then the ‘s’ should be left out. Either St. Paul’s Cathedral or St. Paul Cathedral, but never St. Pauls Cathedral, which is just plural. How many St. Pauls were there?”

The fab five

And what about those exceptions, the five American place names allowed to retain their possessive apostrophes?

Each one had to be approved by an official decision of the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, starting with Martha’s Vineyard in 1933. Clark’s Mountain is the most recent addition, approved in 2002 at the request of the Oregon Geographic Names Board.

The initial proposal came from the Oregon chapter of the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, which was looking for ways to mark the 200th anniversary of the epic expedition that opened the West for exploration and settlement.

The eminence at the northwest corner of Tillamook Head, first described in Meriwether Lewis’ journal in 1805, had never acquired an official name. William Clark referred to it in his journal entry for Jan. 8, 1805, as Clark’s Point of View, and that was the name requested in the initial application.

The 25-member Oregon Geographic Names Board, knowing the national body’s aversion to apostrophes, debated the pros and cons of the request at length before sending it on to Washington, D.C. As state board member Champ Vaughan recalls it, the conversation got a little heated, with historians insisting that the great explorers’ punctuation must be preserved for posterity.

“There was some discussion early on that the apostrophe might be a problem, but that’s what the proponents wanted,” Vaughan said. “I guess they felt that it was so important historically that they might approve it this time.”

And they were right. In the end, the national board decided to christen the feature Clark’s Mountain. Clark’s Point of View was deemed a bit too personal, but the great pathfinder’s apostrophe survived.

On the arbitrary side

It’s a tenuous justification at best, and the rationales put forth on the board’s website for the other four exceptions seem equally arbitrary.

Martha’s Vineyard was approved “after an extensive local campaign.”

Ike’s Point rates an apostrophe because “it would be unrecognizable otherwise,” and John E’s Pond gets one so as not to be confused with John S Pond (“note the lack of the use of a period, which is also discouraged,” the website prompts.)

And Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, which commemorates a famous photograph of a stand of Joshua trees, requires punctuation because “otherwise three apparently given names in succession would dilute the meaning.”

Even Runyon, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names researcher, acknowledges that some of these explanations might leave a little something to be desired. But a certain amount of inconsistency, she argues, is probably inevitable. 

“Names are such an odd business — more of an art than a science,” Runyon said.

“I’ve been doing this 17 years, and sometimes I just shake my head.”

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.


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