Who Put The 'GON' in Oregon? WYSO Curious Pronounces The Answer
Dayton’s Oregon Historic District has a controversial aspect to it: the sound of the word. Unlike the state of Oregon, the end of which is pronounced like “begin", the proper noun used by Daytonians is pronounced Oregon—with an ending that rhymes with John. Dayton resident Jesse Clark asked WYSO Curious—why?
Why is it called the OreGON District? Why don’t we pronounce it the same way people do in Oregon state?
Jesse says he’s been trying to answer the question for quite some time.
“I have, like, books from the fifties, forties, that talk about the history of Dayton. I’ve Googled it a few times. I asked my grandpa and stuff like that. From what I’ve been able to gather, it’s always been called this,” he says. And most Daytonians, including our own announcers, agree with the pronunciation.
But they’re wrong. At least, if you ask pretty much anyone from the state of Oregon.
“People from Oregon call it Oregon,” says Felicia Malatore. She’s from Oregon, but now lives in Dayton. She actually wrote in to WYSO to tell us that our announcers have been saying the word wrong. Felicia even sent us a Youtube link to the "correct" pronunciation.“I think maybe people don’t know how to read it correctly, or maybe it just got messed up along the way and people don’t know better,” says Felicia.
The Oregon/OreGON battle is on.
The Root Of The Word
“Oregon comes from Wauregan, W-A-U-R-E-G-A-N, which was a New England Algonquian Indian word which meant ‘beautiful river,'" says Thomas Love, a professor of anthropology at Linfield College in Oregon. He co-authored a paper on the history of the word. "It was their name for the Ohio River, though nobody knows quite how the word was pronounced originally."
“Oregon The Beautiful” is a detailed account of Love’s search for the meaning of the word Oregon. It ties together the histories of some French and British explorers, and the languages of several North American Indian tribes. Love believes OreGON is mostly an east coast pronunciation of the name. But it’s not clear which came first—the name of the state of Oregon, or the name of the Dayton neighborhood.
The Oregon Territory out west was established in the 1840s, but the area was previously dubbed Oregon Country as far back as the 1700s. According to the Oregon Historic District website, the area we call the Oregon District appears in early newspapers around 1845, but the first developments there were built in 1829
“In the mid-1800s there was a fire station here in Oregon District at the head of Brown St, on fifth street, and they had a pumper in there, and it was called the Oregon Pumper,” says Mike Martin, head of the Oregon District Business Association. He says that early fire station is the best clue to how the district got its name. "It just kind of stuck and people have referred to it since then."
Martin says that in 1972 the Oregon District became a nationally registered historic district. At the time, he says, a lot of research was done on the origin of the name Oregon in Dayton, and that the Dayton pronunciation of the word was on people’s minds.
Martin says there's another, minor theory about how the district got its name.
"If you think back to the time when the Oregon was founded," he says, "the people that were centered in the area were in the downtown area, and so [Oregon] really was kind of a far piece from that, [for] walking... so, a lot of people said 'it's as far away as Oregon.'"
But, with no direct reference to it in local historical archives, the question of why it’s pronounced in such a set way in Dayton is still largely up in the air. Many linguists also acknowledge a significant and ongoing vowel shift in North American English, particularly in northern cities, which means almost all vowel sounds are pronounced differently now than they were two or three hundred years ago.
Who Owns “Oregon”?
To try to get a final answer on the pronunciation problem, WYSO Curious reached out to Professor Allan Metcalf, the executive secretary of the American Dialect Society.
He says both ways of saying the name are correct—simply because locals get to decide on local pronunciation. They own the word.
"I think it’s an unwritten rule, certainly of English, because if you meet somebody and you see how the name is spelled , you ask them ‘how do you pronounce that?’ and if you don’t pronounce it the way that that person says it, you are wrong and that person is right,” says Metcalf. "So, the residents of OreGON can say that it’s OreGON, and the residents of Oregon can say its Oregon, and they can both be right because they’re the ones that make the decision for it.”
Metcalf believes that if the Dayton district was named for the western U.S. territory in the mid-1800s, it’s possible that the pronunciation simply developed out of the way the word looked on paper. He cites two cities in his home state of Illinois that experienced the same pronunciation shift: Berlin—named after the city in Germany—sounds like ‘Merlin,’ and Athens—named for the Greek city—uses the ‘a’ sound, as in the word ‘hay’.
Whether the shift was linguistic, literary or pure chance, it's clear that at some point, Daytonians decided it’s the OreGON District. For a lifelong Dayton resident like Jesse Clark, that’s a matter of hometown pride.
"I’ve met a lot of people over the years, people who have moved here, and a lot of times people have asked me, ‘so, what’s up with the Oregon District?’ and I’m like, first off, it is the OreGON District, and secondly, it’s just a cool, historical part of Dayton, it’s real fun, cool place to go to," he says.
In other words, they say Oregon, we say OreGON—because that’s just how it’s pronounced here.
WYSO Curious is our growing, changing series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics, or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering.