Dear Ace: What would we be if we were Charlottesburg? What’s the difference between a ’ville and a ’burg, anyway?—Anton Burgess-Deville
To begin with, you’d be reading these words in the C-Burg Weekly, not to be confused with that other paper, The Harpoon.
Maybe that would be the extent of the difference. Then again, Ace can’t help but think that a Charlottesburg, only a four-letter tweak away from the island universe in which we dwell presently, would be a world completely alien to what we know. In much the same way that Bedford Falls, absent George Bailey, became the dystopian Pottersville, so could Charlottesville have been, without that elegant, feminizing suffix, a Dickensian factory town, or a hub of motorcycle culture, or a glittering Tokyoesque metropolis renowned for its day-glo space needle casino.
The suffixes -ville and -burg hail respectively from the Gallic and Teutonic regions of Europe. Variants of -ville, denoting “farm” or “village,” appeared in Normandy after the sixth century CE, then in England after the Norman conquest of 1066. Conversely, -burg shares common ancestry with the Old English -borough and Scottish -burgh, referring to a “fortified place, walled town, fortress.”
Colonial settlements in the North Americas initially preferred to break with European toponymical custom, suffixing townships with -ton and -town. By the mid-18th century, -burg and -boro had entered into fashion. It wasn’t until after the American Revolution, however, that -ville entered the American popular lexicon, likely as an expression of solidarity with our French allies—see, for example, Louisville, Kentucky, named with the French suffix for the French King in 1780.
Charlottesville, of course, having always been both ahead of the curve and the exception to any rule, adopted the suffix before the Revolution, during its chartering in 1762. Our town takes its name from Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the Queen consort of England’s King George III. Both hailed from Germany’s House of Hanover. Go figure.
There’s no way to know exactly how Charlottesville would have been affected by a suffix switch, any more than we can know how Ace Atkins would have turned out with a name like Deuce Druthers, Queen Quimby or Jack Johnson.
Considering that many outsiders tend to confuse us with the largest city in North Carolina, however, it’s probably a moot point.
You can ask Ace yourself. Intrepid investigative reporter Ace Atkins has been chasing readers’ leads for 21 years. If you have a question for Ace, e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.