Pike’s Peak or Pikes Peak?

By Maeve Maddox

Attempts by city governments in England to drop apostrophes from official signage frequently provoke enraged opposition from local taxpayers, but in the United States, observes Jennifer Runyon, “We don’t debate the apostrophe.”

Runyon works for the US Board on Geographic Names, a federal body set up by President Benjamin Harrison in 1890 “to maintain uniform geographic name usage throughout the Federal Government.” 

To be sure, some US apostrophe lovers do debate the apostrophe, but where the Board and the US Geological Survey are concerned, apostrophes are res non gratae (“unwanted things”) when it comes to geographic names.

The prevailing rule is that the possessive apostrophe is not permitted in place names, but the Board does not forbid all apostrophe use. An apostrophe may be used to signify a missing letter, as in “Lake O’ the Woods,” or when the label is based on a surname, as in “O’Malley Hollow.”

To date, only five possessive apostrophes have been permitted to survive the Board’s no-apostrophe policy:

Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts
Ike’s Point, New Jersey
John E’s Pond, Rhode Island
Carlos Elmer’s Joshua View, Arizona
Clark’s Mountain, Oregon

I haven’t a clue as to why.

Although many speakers probably write “Pike’s Peak” on their emails or postcards home, the apostrophe was dropped officially in 1890 by the newly established Board on Geographic Names.

According to the Wikipedia article “Pikes Peak,” the mountain has been known by several other names:

”Long Mountain” (Arapaho Heey-otoyoo)
“El Capitán” (named by Spanish explorers)
“Highest Peak” (named by Zubulon Pike who, by the way, never made it to the top)
“Pike’s Highest Peak”
“James Peak” (named in honor of Edwin James, who did reach the top)

Note: Dr. Edwin James travelled as botanist with Major Stephen H. Long’s expedition in 1820. Pike’s name won out for the summit known now as “Pikes Peak,” but a lesser peak on the Continental Divide west of Denver bears his name: “James Peak.”

As an inveterate English teacher, I suppose I ought to care about missing apostrophes on official signage, but I don’t. A sign that says Pikes Peak is no more jarring to me than a URL like victoriassecret.com. As far as I know, not even members of the Apostrophe Protection Society argue that apostrophes belong in URLs.

One of the arguments brought against the removal of possessive apostrophes on signs in the UK is that it’s confusing to children who are taught the rules in school.

Seeing a sign like “Scholars Walk,” “Princes Street,” “Queens College,” “Pikes Peak” or “Veterans Memorial” is not going to warp the brains of children by contradicting what they are being taught in school. If anything, such signs can be used to reinforce learning by using them as exercises. For example, “Where would you put the apostrophe according to the rule?”

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8 Responses to “Pike’s Peak or Pikes Peak?”

  • NickyT

    Pikes peak (how many pikes are there?) is a confusing exception (as is Scholars walk–most of them do). I can see the use of them on signs, but *really*, it forces the reader to stop and reevaluate the phrase. Why accept these as standard in professional writing? “Scholars walk” is actually laughable.

  • CTMoore

    Thanks for providing the history. Now, our local river’s name won’t bother me, the one named after the Lewis & Clark expedition, i.e., Clarks River.
    btw you spelled a word as I did 55 yrs ago that caused me to sit and become the runner-up as the 8th grader who spelled the word traveled as travelled.

  • Glen Nash

    One more to add to your list of names: Lee’s Summit, Missouri — in the S.E. section of the Kansas City, MO metro; population approximately 88,000. (The apostrophe is included always).

  • thebluebird11

    We have had this shift in the medical field as well, but at least it makes sense. First of all, most diseases, syndromes, etc use the LAST name of the person for whom they are named. Second of all, we drop the “S” or it looks stupid. So we have Alzheimer disease (not Alzheimer’s, and not Alzheimers). I can see Martha’s Vineyard retaining the apostrophe-S if Martha was the person’s first name. I would switch the nomenclature to Pike Peak, Scholar Walk (unless plural makes it Scholars). James already ends with an S, so I would just leave it at that. Queens and Princes stuff, that could be one queen or prince, or several (plural), or it could be some random queen or prince, or a specific one. If it is one specific queen, I would say “Queen Anne College.” If the intention is plural, it would be Queens College. I am all for eliminating apostrophes when feasible and for using them fastidiously when necessary.

  • Dan

    The Board of Geographic Names, 1890, did what it thought proper and good —to give the benefit of the doubt. Just because a small group in the government says something is to be done in a particular way may result in compliance, but certainly doesn’t make it correct. BTW – it IS Pike’s Peak.

  • JBMoss

    “To date, only five possessive apostrophes have been permitted to survive the Board’s no-apostrophe policy” –
    If ALL apostrophes are to be ignored, then how do we account for such places as Coeur d’Alene? Or is there some distinction between “Coeur d’Alene” and “Martha’s Vineyard”?

  • Maeve

    JBMoss,
    The prohibition is for the possessive apostrophe. Perhaps I should have tacked on the word “possessive” every time I said “apostrophe” in this article and not just a couple of times:
    —The prevailing rule is that the possessive apostrophe is not permitted in place names, but the Board does not forbid all apostrophe use. An apostrophe may be used to signify a missing letter, as in “Lake O’ the Woods,” or when the label is based on a surname, as in “O’Malley Hollow.” —Or when indicating elision in a French phrase like “Coeur d’Alene.”

  • Jeremy Marchant

    res non gratae, surely, if you mean ‘unwanted things’

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