Carolina Curious: Why Greensboro and not Greensborough?
In this edition of Carolina Curious WFDD listener and High Point University Spanish Professor Adam Winkel wants to know the origins of his home city’s name: Greensboro.
“Why is the ‘boro’ suffix in North Carolina usually spelled 'b-o-r-o' rather than 'b-u-r-g' or 'b-o-r-o-u-g-h'?'”
As WFDD’s David Ford soon found out, it all goes back to history and other languages, because “burg,” “borough” — however you want to spell it — and “bury” for that matter (as in Salisbury) are all Anglo-Saxon in origin dating back centuries to the land of lederhosen and bratwurst. In Germany, “burg” means a town surrounded by a wall. And there are lots of them there: Nuremberg, Brandenburg, Hamburg. So, in England, the closer you are to Germany the more you’ll find “burg”s.
Director of Local History and Genealogy at the Randolph County Public Library “Mac” Whatley says the suffix “borough” — which also means town — has gone through an evolution over the centuries. For example, Edinburgh, Scotland may be spelled b-u-r-g-h, but it is pronounced as if it ended in b-o-r-o-u-g-h but just runs out of gas on the last syllable.
“So, there are all kinds of linguistic rules about dropping the vowels and things like that because of lazy pronunciation, but in England, all of these kinds of things come from history and language,” he says. “You know the Celts, the Saxons, the Vikings, everything in England goes back to some kind of historical event.”
Fewer than 100 people? That’s a Hamlet. Roughly 1,000 or less? Village. Less than 50,000? Town. More than 100,000? City. More than a million? Metropolis. Meanwhile, here in the New World, America, terms that may have been treated historically back in the day become political.
“That’s why there’s such a variety of names — or suffixes really instead of just names — because in this state in this country, cities and towns are created by the state legislature, and people petition the legislature for incorporating a city or town,” says Whatley. “And whoever is doing the petition can choose the name.”
He says, take Charlotte for example: 800,000 people and it’s a city. But Kannapolis is also known as a city, and it only has 45,000 people.
“And of course, it’s a real outlier because “polis” is Greek,” says Whatley. “It means city, so, it was named city of the cannons, you know the cannon mills founded it. But then you’ve got Pinehurst which is officially a village, and they have 16,000-some-odd people, but Franklinville, where I live, is a town and it only has 1,600 people.”
Whatley says some historical suffix influences do endure here in the South. “Ville” from the French began catching on shortly after the French Revolution starting with Louisville, Kentucky, in 1780, and three years later, Campbellton, North Carolina, switched to Fayetteville. And Asheville? Well, that’s where things get political.
“You would use ‘ville’ if there was already a ‘borough.’ So, Asheboro is 1796, and Asheville is 1797. And both of them are named after Governor Samuel Ashe. You also had Greenville, which is 1786 in eastern North Carolina, but you had Greensboro which is 1808, and they’re both after General Nathaniel Greene. Then you had Princeton in Johnson County 1861, but Princeville in Edgecombe County in 1885."
So, when you have lots of little towns like North Carolina has, you’ve got to be inventive with names. Interchanging suffixes is one way to do that. Whatley says the sounds of words count too. There are lots of Franklinvilles (after Ben Franklin), but no Franklinboroughs. As for all the b-o-r-o cities in the Tar Heel state —Greensboro, Asheboro, Tarboro, Carrboro, Pittsboro, Wilkesboro, Swansboro — he says, they just all sound better than “burg.”
But, getting back to our listener Adam Winkel and his question about the mysterious b-o-r-o ending to “Greensboro.” Will we ever know the answer as to why?
“Well, I think it’s linguistic laziness,” says Whatley. “Because Asheboro, when it was incorporated in 1796 was a ‘borough,’ and then it went through a whole period for 100 years where it was just Ashboro. And so, they weren’t even spelling Ashe right since it’s named after a governor, Samuel Ashe. But they didn’t know it had an ‘e’ on it, so they just did the quick and easy thing. So, b-o-r-o, it’s just easier — quicker when you’re writing a letter or [an] envelope or something like that.”
So, after all that history, politics, and linguistic evolution, the answer to our listener’s question is, “Because people are inherently lazy?”
“Yeah,” says Whatley. “I think that, and bad spellers,” he laughs.
Well, ask a simple question, and get a simple answer, but always know this: no question is too big or too small for the Carolina Curious.
Support for Carolina Curious comes from Buie’s Market Winston-Salem.