The “London, England” Phenomenon

Many Europeans seem amused (at best) or downright angry (at worst) by something Anglo-American author Bill Bryson termed the “London, England Phenomenon”. It’s the tendency of the American media to mention a city’s full name in newspaper articles or news broadcasts. “Why”, these Europeans must wonder, “do American broadcasters say ‘London, England’ or ‘Paris, France’ when everyone else in the world seems to know where London and Paris are?”

Well, part of it is because there are thousands of American cities named after more familiar cities. Just in my home state of Georgia, for instance, there’s Rome, Athens, Dublin, Vienna, Geneva, Berlin, Dover, Hull, Bethlehem, Damascus, Oxford, Bristol, Cairo, Kingston, Manchester, Bremen and – just to be complete – Smyrna, hometown of actress Julia Roberts, although that’s cheating, since the city in Turkey has been known as Izmir since 1922 (according to the Greeks) or the mid 1400s (according to the Turks).

There are at least five American cities named Venice, seven called Belfast, nine called Glasgow, sixteen named Paris, twenty each named Athens or Manchester, twenty-one named Berlin, twenty-three named Bristol and twenty-four each named either Florence or Oxford. Many Europeans have heard of Cambridge, Massachusetts because of Harvard University, but not many know about the fifteen other cities of the same name in the US. During the Cold War, it might have seemed like one Moscow was enough… but there are sixteen US towns with the same name. There are even fourteen Birminghams in the US… and two of them are in Ohio and three of them are in Pennsylvania!

None of this even takes into account the commonality of American place names. Back in my home state of Georgia, there’s Albany, Arlington, Auburn, Boston, Canton, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Fargo, Greensboro, Hoboken, Jacksonville, Lavonia, Leesburg, Louisville, Montgomery, Mount Airy, Mount Vernon, Mountain View, Mystic, Nashville, Omaha, Roswell, Stockton, Waco, West Point, and White Plains (whew!), any of which could easily be confused with more famous cities in the various states. And guess what? There’s also a Dallas in my adopted home state of North Carolina. That Dallas is only around 15 miles from my home and often comes up in conversations. North and South Carolina even have dueling Beauforts, although the North Carolina one is pronounced “Boe-FORT” and the South Carolina one is pronounced “Bew-FURT”.

And how about more generically-named cities? Many of the “random trivia” emails that go around from time to time say that there’s a city called Greenville in every state in America. This is incorrect, although there are Greenvilles in thirty-four American states, including two in Wisconsin. There are twenty-three Fairviews, eighteen Riversides, seventeen Newports, and sixteen Centervilles, to say nothing of thirty Franklins, twenty-nine Clintons and twenty-four Salems. And, as any fan of The Simpsons knows, there are no less than twenty-seven Springfields in the United States. Heck, there are sixteen places named Adams in the United States… with two of them each in Indiana and New York and four (yes, four) in Wisconsin! (It seems like folks in Wisconsin aren’t very imaginative when it comes to naming places, no?)

I haven’t researched this topic all that much, but I’m guessing that none of this was really a problem early on. After all, folks didn’t travel all that much in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, so if someone in North Georgia told a friend that he was “going to Athens”, the friend probably assumed that he meant Athens, Georgia and not Athens, Greece or Athens, Wisconsin or Athens, California.

At some point though, news began to be transmitted by telegraph. And that presented a problem. While it was great that the telegraph could instantly transmit news of a Union victory at Shiloh during the American Civil War, folks who lived near the seventeen other American cities named Shiloh might get confused, or worse, alarmed. Or if a telegraph operator in Athens, Ohio got excited about a natural disaster in the area and sent a news story down the wire without bothering to mention the state, newspaper editors in Atlanta, Chicago, or Nashville could set off a needless panic by thinking that the disaster happened in Georgia, Illinois or Tennessee.

So the various news organizations started adding a dateline to the beginning of their stories. This clearly stated where and when the news story originated. This survives today in most American newspapers, where a story might begin like so:

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Reuters) – Ten stowaways from the Dominican Republic got a nasty surprise when the barge they were hidden on docked at a port in Alabama — the cold.

Of course, television eventually came along, and someone somewhere decided to stick with the “London, England Phenomenon”. So American television news anchors often say things like “there was a full-scale riot in Berlin, Germany today”, so that viewers don’t panic and call their loved ones in Connecticut or New Jersey or Tennessee to make sure that they’re OK.

Note that newspapers don’t always include the full city name. One of the largest news services, the Associated Press, has a style guide which lists thirty American cities which may be referred to by their city name only:

Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Honolulu, Houston, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC

The list is interesting in that some cities seem to be included for their status (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago), while others seem to be chosen for their uniqueness (as near as I can tell, there’s only one Milwaukee and one Honolulu). But even the AP guide is somewhat ambiguous: popular culture has made it so that 99% of Americans think of cities in Michigan and Texas when they hear the names “Detroit” and “Houston”, even though there are seven other Detroits and twelve other Houstons in the US.

Which brings me to my final point: Americans rarely use the “city, state” convention in personal conversation. Unless a person lives near Paris, Texas or London, Kentucky, the average American would never say “I’m going to Paris, France” or “I just got back from London, England”. If meeting a stranger for the first time, they might say “I’m from Atlanta, Georgia” just to remove the remote possibility that the stranger might think they’re from Atlanta, Kansas or Atlanta, Missouri. But after that, it would just be “Atlanta”. People from New York City tend to be the oddballs here: many may say “Brooklyn” or “Queens” instead of “New York City”, and that’s because people who live elsewhere in New York state have long been irritated at outsiders assuming that “New York” means “New York City” and not, for instance, Albany, Rochester, Buffalo or Syracuse.

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