Economics Index and Qualifications
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics
Former Instructor St. John's University, New York City

What Does D.C. mean in Washington D.C.

In one of those videos where they highlight the ignorance of the American people, particularly on geography, they asked what does the D.C. in Washington D.C. stand for. The answer they were looking for was no doubt, District of Columbia. But this phrase District of Columbia can be a little confusing, why do we call it that?

Colombia today is a country in South America. Note that the name Colombia differs from Columbia in that the u is replaced by o. But in the first century of America's history, Columbia, with a u, was another name for the United States of America. There were several reasons for this.

The United States of America was the first country to win its independence from the European colonial powers. This is why the USA claimed the name the United States of America when it is only one of many countries in the Americas. When America gained its independence it was the only independent country in the Americas.

The Americans believed that Columbus discovered America, so Columbia was a natural name to use for America, and therefore the Untied States of America.

Female Symbol of USA

Furthermore, Columbia was a female symbol of America, just as Uncle Sam became a male symbol of America. Here is link to perhaps the most famous picture of Columbia.

Today Lady Liberty, as in the Statue of Liberty, is the female symbol of America. Lady Liberty replaced Columbia.

Columbia the Ship

The Columbia Rediviva, commonly called the Columbia, was the name of the first American ship to sail around the globe. This happened in 1790, Washington D.C. was named in 1791, so the name of the ship might have something to do with the name of the District of Columbia. Today proud Americans tend to focus on America putting a man on the moon, but in early American history the Columbia may have played a somewhat similar role.

Some people find the old American patriotic song, "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" confusing. How is America, the country, the gem of the ocean. The answer is probably that the song is refering to both the country and the ship.

"Columbia the Gem of the Ocean," was one of three songs that competed for the title, the National Anthem. "Hail Columbia," and the song that was selected "The Star Spangled Banner." were the other two. Two of these songs have Columbia in the title, none have America.

In the last hundred years, we have mostly stopped calling America, Columbia. As we have seen there were several reasons. The voyage of the Columbia became less relevant. Lady Liberty replaced Columbia. The Star Spangled Banner and other patriotic songs made "Hail Columbia" and "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" less important.

Columbia the Country

Beyond these is the obvious point that there is now a country of Colombia. It would be weird for the French to say, our offical name is France, but our nickname is Germany. Similarly it would be weird for us to use the name of Colombia as our nickname.

Colombia gained independence from Spain in 1819, more than a quarter of a century after America started using Columbia as a nickname. After about a decade the country broke up, and what is now Colombia and Panama was renamed "The Republic of New Granada." This name was based on the old colonial name, "New Kingdom of Granada." It was not until 1863 that the name went back to Colombia. Both "Hail Columbia" and "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" were written during this period when there was no country Colombia.

So we dropped Columbia as a nickname which makes the name of our nation's capital, Washington D.C., somewhat confusing.

Washington D.C. is between Virginia and Maryland. It is not part of any state, it is a special district where the American government has its capital. So we might say the phrase District of Columbia roughtly means, the capital district of the United States of America.


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A major rewrite was posted July 27, 2018