Editorial: What’s in a name?

The centennial anniversary of World War I reminds us that to the victor goes not just the spoils but, perhaps more importantly, the names — or, more precisely, the power to name. So, for example, Bohemia became subsumed in the newly created state of Czechoslovakia, as too much of Galicia was absorbed by the Ukraine; and the town of Bozen in what had been the Austrian Tyrol was renamed Bolzano when it became a part of victorious Italy. The earlier names are seldom used, if even remembered, now.

So who named Rappahannock’s county seat “Little Washington?” It must have been recent immigrants from in and around that much bigger Washington, using the Nation’s Capital as a point of reference, right? Surely they’re the ones, like a conquering army, who put the “Little” in the place name. People who grew up around here didn’t need the “Little” to locate the county seat.

That was the conventional storyline, anyway, as it played out recently on that virtual — and often entertaining — salon called Rappnet. Which I must confess made me personally depressed, forced to question my own pedigree. For growing up in Warrenton — which my Rappahannock friends often called “the city” — I recall first hearing of this magically sounding place called “Little Washington” from my mother in the early 1950s.

So was she just putting on airs, like Tennessee Williams’s Blanche DuBois? Though a Warrenton native who seldom traveled far from home, was she pretending to be an urbane sophisticate — so familiar with both Washingtons that she had to let people know that she needed to distinguish between the two? My whole personal history — that of being a proud country boy, uncorrupted by the Nation’s Capital’s pretensions — came into question.

Imagine my relief, then, when this newspaper’s former editor, Mary Ann Kuhn, let it be known that, when restoring her Middletown Inn, she had found a letter apparently dated 1840 and addressed to Middleton Miller at Little Washington, Virginia!

For a detailed inquiry into the origins of the name “Little Washington,” Arthur Candenquist, who writes this newspaper’s Civil War Sesquicentennial column, has been doing some serious research. His findings are on the front page of today’s paper.

Walter Nicklin