7 Rules for Identifying People by Place Names

By Mark Nichol

George R. Stewart, if he is remembered today at all, is noted as the writer of Earth Abides, a seminal work in the science fiction subgenre of the postapocalyptic novel. But to some language geeks he is hailed as an onomastician, a scholar of place names. Stewart, in the 1930s, is perhaps best known in the latter role for proposing a schema for how to identify someone according to their place of origin or residence.

Journalist and scholar H.L. Mencken was reportedly so impressed with the following distillation that he named them Stewart’s Laws of Municipal Onomastics:

1. Add -n to a place name ending in -a or -ia (Atlantan, Californian).

2. Add -an to a place name ending in -i or sounding like -e (Hawaiian, Baltimorean).

3. Add -ian to a place name ending in -on (Washingtonian).

4. Change -y to -i and add -an to a place name ending in -y (Schenectadian).

5. Add -an to a place name ending in -o (Ohioan).

6. Add -ite or -er to a place name ending in a consonant or a silent -e (New Englander, Seattleite).

7. Delete -s and add -tan to a place name ending in -polis (Annapolitan, for Annapolis).

That’s an impressive and helpful set of rules. Unfortunately, many people didn’t get the memo, so we find the rules widely broken. For example, someone from Florida is a Floridian, not a Floridan, and one writes of San Franciscans, not San Franciscoans. Parisians breaks the rules (it should be Parisite — ouch — or Pariser), as does Chinese (Stewart’s rule dictates Chinan).

Then there are classical affectations like Cantabrigian (Cambridge), Novocastrian (Newcastle, in Australia), and Oxonian (Oxford); more or less well-known foreign language alterations such as Flemish (Flanders), Madrileno (Madrid), and Muscovite (Moscow); and references — some famous, others obscure — based on state nicknames, think “Bay Stater” (Massachusetts), Hoosier (Indiana), and Nutmegger (Connecticut).

Thus, like many other attempts at codifying human behavior or custom, Stewart’s laws are breached as often as they are observed, but they’re still a useful guideline. Ultimately, though, let your fingers do the walking through a dictionary, geographical dictionary, atlas, or other resource.

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18 Responses to “7 Rules for Identifying People by Place Names”

  • Chris

    1. Add -n to a place name ending in -a or -ia (Atlantan, Californian).

    There, fixed that for ya.

  • Beth Baldauf

    Thanks! (Have had this conversation several times recently!) So, if you live in Forest Acres, you’d be a Forest Acresite or a Forest Acreser? (Somehow, neither sounds right.)

  • Stephen

    Baltimore ends in a silent -e, and thus would belong to rule 6 not rule 2. The e is only sounded when followed by the -an suffix.

  • Katie

    Parisian is probably spelled that way under French rules, not Stewart’s, where many people/place names end in -ain/-aine. Chinese may also have a similar reason, it is chinois in french.

  • Tanja Cilia

    Well, as usual, we are different. We are from Malta, and we are Maltese.

  • Scott

    Indianapolitan is an awkward word.

  • Chuck

    Actually, we tend to be known as Baltimorons.

    Of course, prepare for trouble if you actually call us that, especially if you’re not a Baltimoron.

  • rob benwell

    Baltimore ends in a silent -e, and thus would belong to rule 6 not rule 2. The e is only sounded when followed by the -an suffix

  • thebluebird11

    I say we just make ’em up as we go along! You can call me a Floridan, a Floridite or a Florider, if you want, or a former New Yorkite, New Yorkian, New Yorkist…
    As long as we have Cantabrigians and Novocastrians (which to me sound like aliens from other planets), I think the rules are more observed by being broken, and anything is game as far as I’m concerned! If I were writing a book of fiction, I’d have fun with it. If I were writing a book of non-fiction, I’d just say, “He was from Cambridge” or “She is from San Francisco,” and skip the whole caboodle! Too many rules spoil the…whatever.

  • Ray Ward

    I might mess up the spelling here, but folks living in New Orleans are Orleanians (or New Orleanians). As usual, there’s no rule applicable to New Orleans.

  • MILNEWS.ca

    Here in Canada, we even have a government web page listing how to refer to people from different cities and towns:
    http://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/bien-well/fra-eng/vocabulaire-vocabulary/demonyms-eng.html
    Enjoy!

  • thebluebird11

    Arviarmiut? Moose Javian? Nanaimoite? Valdorian? Hoo-boy. Good thing I’m not a writer, because I’d spend all day looking this stuff up to verify it before I wrote something, and get lost in the fascination of all these bizarrities. Plus I think a person from Whistler should just be a Whistler…unless, of course, s/he can’t whistle…

  • Sharon

    Happy to be a simple Texan (as opposed to a Texasite or Texaser, rule 6). Some rules definitely are made to be broken in favor of something easier!

  • hedgehog

    Hello! Here in the UK we have one or two strange ones — who would ever have guessed?

    We have Liverpuddlians, from Liverpool, of course, Novocastrians from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Salopians from Shropshire. My wife is, strictly speaking, a Kentish Maid (had she been born the other side of the Medway she would have been a Maid of Kent.

    And there is never any need to ask if someone is from Yorkshire – he or she will tell you within moments of meeting you.

    Fascinating little piece – I loved the idea of Parisites!

  • Peter

    Plus I think a person from Whistler should just be a Whistler…unless, of course, s/he can’t whistle…

    Make that a Siffleur

  • Benjamin

    My favourite from the list linked to by Milnews.ca above is Haligonian for someone from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

  • venqax

    In defense of Stewart, the proposals are specifically for municipal demonyms, not for nations, states, or provinces. And I think they are meant as a guide for forming such terms when no guidance exists– not for replacing ancient, traditional, long-established terms that already exist.

  • Jennifer Mueller

    I think the best is the one I just became, whether or not it is the one used in official documents or not. Bellingham, WA are Bellinghamsters.

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