Dear Doctor Boli: I have a question for a language expert like yourself who is also an expert on all things Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I was at my local grocery store the other day and happened to pick up a bottle of bottled water. I was intrigued by its claim to be “Naturally Alkaline” water from protected underground springs, as alkaline springs such as those found in the Southwestern USA are generally considered undrinkable bordering on poisonous. And a “protected underground spring” is probably marketing-speak for “an artesian well”.
But stupid bottled-water marketing hogwash aside, what really intrigued and annoyed me was the fact that they claimed their source to be in the “Allegany Mountains” of the NY/PA border region. I’d always seen that particular bunch of hills as the “Allegheny Mountains”, to match the Allegheny River and Allegheny County, so I wanted to check with you.
Looking at the bottled water company’s website I linked above, I am amused and horrified to see them spell that mountain range no fewer than three different ways in the space of a single paragraph: Allegany Mountains, Alleghany Mountains, and The Alleghenies. Which if any of these is most correct or the preferred spelling for people actually from that region, and not from a marketing company based in L.A. or some other area that lumps everything between the Sierra Nevadas and the Catskills as merely “Flyover Country”? —Martin the Mess.
Dear Sir: Pittsburgh is the seat of Allegheny County, and the river is generally spelled Allegheny as well.
Cumberland, the Queen City of the Potomac and the metropolis of western Maryland, is the seat of Allegany County. Belmont (New York) is also the seat of an Allegany County, although the river is still usually—but not always—spelled “Allegheny” in the Southern Tier of New York State.
Covington in Virginia is the seat of Alleghany County, and Sparta in North Carolina is also the seat of an Alleghany County.
The pronunciation of all three spellings is the same, and all three spellings are derived from the same Indian name. One could construct a neat narrative to account for the different spellings thus: Pittsburgh began as a French outpost, and the spelling “Allegheny” is the best approximation of the name to French phonetic laws; the English simply took it from the French along with the smoldering ruins of Fort Duquesne. “Allegany” is the obvious English spelling of the same name, used in areas that were first settled by the English. “Alleghany” is a sort of compromise, in which the increasing dominance of Pittsburgh as the gateway to the West encouraged natural pedantry to insert an H in the local spelling.
All this may be true, but we should be less than honest if we did not note that the French are at least not responsible for the name of the Allegheny River. The maps they made of Fort Duquesne show that they considered the Allegheny and Ohio to be the same river, called “Ohio” or “La Belle Rivière” for its entire length, with the Monongahela flowing into it at Fort Duquesne.
We may therefore fall back on a simpler explanation: the correct spelling is “Allegheny,” but people in Appalachia are very poor spellers.
The label of your bottled water is perhaps some marketer’s attempt to please everybody at once. If one must choose a spelling, however, one might point out that the population of Allegheny County in Pennsylvania is about a million and a quarter, whereas the best any of the Alleganies and Alleghanies can muster is about 75,000.