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?”