What's in a Name

The title page of a nineteenth century book of ballads containing "the Ballad of Chevy Chase"

What's in a Name? Chevy Chase

Though most Americans (and Google) associate the name with Cornelius “Chevy” Chase, the actor of National Lampoon fame, those of us in the D.C. area know that Chevy Chase, Maryland had it first. Rumor has it, though, that the man and the town actually get their names from the same place: an English ballad that’s at least 500 years old.

What’s in a Name? Anacostia

East & west branch below Washington

How did the historic D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia get its name? The short answer is, of course, its proximity to the Anacostia River; but the river has its own history that’s worth unpacking. Like the Potomac, Anacostia’s name can be traced back to the area’s Indigenous population – in this case, the Nacotchtank of the Algonquian stock.

View of the Smithsonian Castle building

What's in a Name? The Smithsonian

He never traveled to the United States or took an interest in our politics. He wasn’t known for any philanthropic efforts. Though intellectually curious, he didn’t make any groundbreaking or well-known scientific discoveries—and didn’t patronize people who did. Yet, surprisingly, he left his estate to the United States, asking that we use it to promote scientific research and education. Of all people, how did an English scientist's name come to be such a staple of Washington culture?

Early map of DC showing the diagonal avenues named for states

What's in a Name? The State Avenues

There are fifty-one streets in D.C. named for every state and Puerto Rico. But, admittedly, not all state avenues are created equal. Some are long, vital roadways through our city. Others are historic and prominent—the location of our country’s most important events. And some are…well, a bit hard to find. Admit it: you probably couldn’t point to all of them on a city map. So why are some state avenues more prominent than others? Is there any method to the naming madness?