“City of Magnificent Distances”
Posted: 26 January 2014 07:37 AM   [ Ignore ]
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The “City of Magnificent Distances” is one of the more obscure nicknames for Washington, D.C.  It is frequently dated to the 1880s, but this seems to be based on a passing reference on Barry Popik’s site quoting a newspaper article from 1881, and making no claim to being the earliest usage.  I bring this up because I have seen the nickname various times in my early baseball research from the 1860s and 1870s, and I am curious about tracking down its origin.  The Jeffersonian, a newspaper from Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, in its issue of November 1, 1866 has a lengthy piece about the Stroudsburg baseball club visiting Milford, about ten miles away, to play the local Sawkill Club.  The writer was very pleased by the treatment by the locals (particularly the supper provided) and waxed rhapsodic about Milford, including this:

‘As yet, it may aptly be called, as Randolph, of Roanoke, called the city of Washington, a village of “magnificent distances;” but the spirit of enterprise is there which will soon make Milford the compact, thriving borough, and the town “of beauty,” which to its inhabitants, and to visitors, will prove “a joy for ever.“‘

This ascribes the nickname of John Randolph, a congressman from Virginia in the early 19th century.  A google search turns up no other evidence supporting this, however.  It also seems to be saying that the point of the nickname was that, at least in Randolph’s time, the city of Washington was spread out and thinly populated.  Perhaps the nickname died out because it no longer made sense, and only survived as long as it did because it is colorful, even if nonsensical.  Or perhaps I am missing something, and y’all will cheerfully point this out to me.

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Posted: 27 January 2014 07:45 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Citations from An American Glossary: Being an Attempt to Illustrate Certain Americanisms Upon Historical Principles, Vol. 1 by Richard Hopwood Thornton (J.B. Lippincott, 1912):

City of Magnificent Distances. Washington.
1835 At Washington, ”the city of Magnificent Distances,” visit the lions; ascend to the capitol, &c.—C.J. Latrobe, ‘The Rambler in N. America,’ i. 28 (Lond.).
1836 That city ”so magnificent in distances,” as Monsieur Serrurier said of it.—Beverly Tucker, ‘The Partisan Leader,’ p. 384 (N.Y., 1861).
1858 I remember when Washington, instead of being regarded as a great capital, was by those who were unable to see its future, ridiculed as a city of magnificent distances,—a mockery of a city.—Mr. Seward of New York, U.S. Senate, May 15: Cong. Globe, p. 375, App.

books?id=yY0VAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA179&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U0GPSNoUr_cRogVMYCkyfQJ9WYKDQ&ci=147,936,753,280&edge=0

Edit: And here’s a footnote from The Writings of James Madison: 1808-1819, on a letter to Richard Rush dated June 27, 1817 that mentions “Mr. Correa”:

José Correa da Serra, Minister Plenipotentiary of Portugal from July 22, 1816, to November 9, 1820, was a noted figure in Washington society. He was the author of the saying that Washington was a “city of magnificent distances.” [...]

books?id=I2USAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA394&img=1&zoom=3&hl=en&sig=ACfU3U2Q1ikY6ir3w9higrnPSKsFimhPUg&ci=182,1025,696,261&edge=0

[ Edited: 27 January 2014 07:52 AM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 27 January 2014 01:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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good work, lh.

Is that phrase so ridiculous? Not in my book. I recall standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looking toward the Capitol—it was more than a “magnificent distance”, it was stupendous.

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Posted: 27 January 2014 02:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Is that phrase so ridiculous? Not in my book. I recall standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looking toward the Capitol—it was more than a “magnificent distance”, it was stupendous.

I agree, it doesn’t seem at all ridiculous to me.

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Posted: 04 February 2014 06:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Richard, was this a help?

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Posted: 08 February 2014 03:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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"Richard, was this a help? “

Whoops!  It was rude of me not to respond.  Mea culpa.  Mea maxima culpa.

So, was it a help?  I certainly don’t have a final answer to my question, and I doubt that such an answer will ever turn up.  It provided enough information to persuade me that it was of obscure and disputed origin, even when it was current.  This is helpful in that it clarified the question, if not the answer.

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Posted: 08 February 2014 04:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Excellent!  Thanks for responding; when one turns up such nice antedates, it’s good to get a pat on the back.

[ Edited: 08 February 2014 04:38 PM by languagehat ]
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Posted: 09 February 2014 01:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Seems to have been used both as friendly and insulting/ironic term, but hard to see how it might have originally been intended.  If it was coined or popularised by José Correa he seems to have been both a welcome and honoured guest in the USA but in the later years of his stay he became disenchanted with US politics, and the US disenchanted with him.

http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/josé-correia-da-serra
http://repositorio.ul.pt/bitstream/10451/5597/1/0873-0628_2010-001-000_00341-00360.pdf

He may have deliberately intended the double-edge, and equally it may have referred to political relationships as much as architecture

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Posted: 09 February 2014 12:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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This is just my take on it, but to me the phrase suggests long scenic views, essentially meaning “city of magnificent vistas”.

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Posted: 10 February 2014 12:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I agree that it may be used in a pleasant way with the layout of modern Washington, but I understand that in the early 1800’s it was a collection of small very ordinary villages with a few larger buildings all connected by muddy roads and paths.  So probably an ironic comment when first used.
Mind you, I didn’t visit then…

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Posted: 10 February 2014 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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What was considered “Washington” (as opposed to the District of Columbia) was different back then. “Washington” was a lot smaller. Those other towns and villages, like Georgetown, Arlington, and Alexandria, were not part of it. (Arlington and Alexandria are no longer part of DC, Virginia having taken them back.) I’m re-watching Ken Burns’s The Civil War and many of the letters read describe people going up the Potomac “past Washington to Georgetown” for instance.

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