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Appalachia by Any Other Name

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Flickr:  Bassett's Irregular Adventures
Flickr: Bassett's Irregular Adventures

One unmistakable sign signaling a presidential election year is the word "Appalachia" reentering the nation's vocabulary. This time around, it's the demise of one of the region's most reliable industries with more than 200 coal-fired generators slated to be shut down in five years wrecking the region's mining economy in pursuit of cleaner energy. It reignites old debates on past government programs, chronic poverty and stereotypes that have remained unchanged for generations.

It's devastating news for an already shrinking coal industry, but natives of the southern mountains have learned to judge what they hear simply by the way someone speaks the word. Even though it's the fourth oldest European place name in the nation, it's the most mispronounced word in the United States. Do an internet search on "Appalachian pronunciation" and it will produce more than 400,000 results on the subject.

The word originated in June 1528 when the Spanish Narváez expedition exploring the Florida panhandle encountered an American Indian village they wrote down as "Apalachen," which was soon translated in the Spanish language to Apalachee.

Hernando de Soto's expedition from present-day Tampa to North Georgia in 1540 further entrenched the place name. He reportedly took along an Apalachee guide on the journey seeking gold and precious metals in their northern territory. The guide spoke a trade language much like Swahili giving the explorer the false impression the tribe's reach was continental. When de Soto's party approached the southern mountain range, he named them after the tribe. The word then appeared on a Spanish map in 1562 and the Appalachian mountains of North America became the official name of record for the hills.

The pronunciation "App-a-latch-an" became the accepted usage in the English language. The upper end of the range in New York was named the Allegheny Mountains and, as it was learned the two ranges were really one, the names became interchangeable. By the late 19th century, the name Appalachia became the accepted academic designation for the 2,100-mile-long mountain range.

In 1922, New York Evening Post columnist Ray Torrey wrote an article under a headline "A Great Trail from Maine to Georgia." In August 1937, the longest hiking-only footpath in the world stretching from Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia was completed. This is where the modern mispronunciation of the word originated. "App-a-latch-an" worked its way south and emerged as "App-a-lay-shan" -a linguistic note that would soon become symbolic to America.

In 1964, Appalachia was thrown on the world stage when President Lyndon Johnson stood on a front porch in Inez, Kentucky and declared a war on poverty in the region. Johnson's war was to stem the outward migration to urban areas and create economic opportunity. The reporters traveling with him on the campaign trail unloaded on the southern mountains depicting them as the most impoverished place in the nation. "App-a-lay-sha" suddenly became a whirlwind of photographs of coal mining, cultural ignorance and backwoods misery that shocked America.

New federal funds designed to help suddenly grew the Appalachian region on congressional maps that would eventually stretch from New York to Mississippi and have little to do with the mountain poverty reporters showed the world.

"App-a-lay-sha" came to represent pork-barrel government programs that did little and reporters seeking that next great story of American poverty. Among central and southern natives, the pronunciation meant to hide the good silverware and keep one eye open. The sensational media images made it impossible to explain to urban Americans life is different where land is the economic machine. With some exception, its stewardship best left in hands that have worked it for generations and kept it on the community's property tax rolls.

America learned no magic bullet can end poverty. It's improved greatly in Appalachia, but still in sight of the front porch where President Johnson launched his war. In some cases, it's locally institutional by design. There's a saying in the hills that most poor towns are generally a good highway and two funerals away from progress -- a regionalism derived from business leaders, under the guise of economic development, fighting to keep out industries that could force them to pay higher wages to their own employees.

"Appalachia" is no longer the heritage-derived place name coined by European explorers or the designation famed author Washington Irving once suggested as a replacement for North America. The word now represents systemic failure and poverty in the national lexicon. So, if politicians and media pundits insist on making Appalachia an issue every presidential election cycle to point fingers at it, they should at least correctly pronounce the word.