What is the (formal) name of the capital of the United States? Is it "Washington" or "Washington DC"?

I'm aware that "DC" refers to "District of Columbia", which is the non-state internal administrative division in which Washington is located.

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    Why would this be relevant to a traveler? – Nate Eldredge Dec 11 '14 at 0:27
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    @NateEldredge try asking for directions to Washington, or a flight to Washington. They'll almost always have to clarify - city or state? – Mark Mayo Dec 11 '14 at 1:29
  • Right. But the asker seems to know that "Washington, DC" is the common (and universally understood) name for the city. I'm trying to understand why knowing its "formal" name would be relevant. – Nate Eldredge Dec 11 '14 at 1:51
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is not about travel. – Flimzy Dec 11 '14 at 2:11
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    Local people just call it DC – Elchin Dec 12 '14 at 3:51

With very few exceptions, towns and cities in US are generally referred to with name followed by name of the state. Reason being that there are huge amount of cities with same names. For example besides Washington, DC, there is also:

  • Washington, Arkansas
  • Washington, Yolo County, California
  • Washington, Nevada County, California
  • Washington, Connecticut
  • Washington, Georgia
  • Washington, Illinois
  • Washington, Indiana
  • Washington, Iowa
  • Washington, Kansas
  • Washington, Kentucky
  • Washington, Louisiana
  • Washington, Maine
  • Washington, Massachusetts
  • Washington, Michigan
  • Washington, Mississippi
  • Washington, Missouri
  • Washington, Nebraska
  • Washington, New Hampshire
  • Washington, New Jersey
  • Washington, New York
  • Washington, North Carolina
  • Washington, Oklahoma
  • Washington, Pennsylvania
  • Washington, Utah
  • Washington, Vermont
  • Washington, Virginia
  • Washington, West Virginia
  • Washington, Wisconsin

You might think that Washington, DC ought to be an exception, just like all other well known cities. You don't usually have to say for example "San Francisco, CA". But to make things more complicated, there is state of Washington, thus when you saying just "Washington", it's assumed that you're talking about the state, not the city.

BTW, many Americans use similar rule when talking about cities outside of US. For example in casual context they'd say "Paris, France", while European would just say "Paris", France being implied.

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    Canadians too. Keeps it distinct from Paris, Ontario (along with London, Moscow, Kingston and more!) – Mark Mayo Dec 11 '14 at 1:46
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    Can someone tell me who on earth would plaster the exact same name for 27 cities? Is this some kind of revenge against administrative officers? And CA has TWO of them? WTH? – Raestloz Dec 11 '14 at 2:59
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    @Raestloz Who would have done that? A bunch of people who lived many days travel away from the next city of the same name, didn't care about central government, and probably didn't imagine they would ever be part of the same country as those other cities. (And 'cities' means villages in many cases). – DJClayworth Dec 11 '14 at 3:16
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    @Raestloz - 27 people with the same surname who wanted a city named after them? or at least named after the first president. – Sayse Dec 11 '14 at 7:42
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    Another example of this would be cities named after Alexander the Great – March Ho Dec 26 '14 at 9:57

For tourist purposes, you would do best to use "Washington, DC", not to be confused with the many other Washingtons. The town of Washington, Virginia, less than two hours' drive from DC, has an excellent and very expensive B&B known as the Inn at Little Washington.

Natives will refer to "the District", or "DC", but these terms will be useless if booking a plane ticket from somewhere else.

If you want to blend in once there, the local pronunciation is closest to Washənun.

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    Well, I'd imagine booking a plane ticket from elsewhere in the US you could say "DC" and people would know what you meant. Definitely in the northeast US at least. – David Z Dec 11 '14 at 8:54

While formally, it's the District of Colombia, inevitably people say Washington, D.C., from my experience. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, to distinguish it from other Washington cities in the US (eg Washington, Arkansas), and secondly, to distinguish it from Washington state - which is on the west coast.

I've also seen and heard it colloquially referred to as simply 'DC', and Wikipedia suggests some people call it 'the District'.


Neither. Legally, since 1871, it's just the District of Columbia. About.com:

This federal district was first called the City of Washington (in honor of George Washington) and the city around it was called the Territory of Columbia (in honor of Christopher Columbus). An act of Congress in 1871 effectively merged the City and the Territory into a single entity called the District of Columbia. Since that time the nation’s capital has been referred to as Washington, DC, the District of Columbia, Washington, the District, and DC.

  • This is not entirely accurate. San Francisco, CA is both a city and a county, and has no city government independent of the county. The city of Washington no longer has a government independent of the District, but it exists as a city coextensive with the District. It was not until 1895 that Congress folded Georgetown (which existed before the Revolution) into the "city of Washington". Source – Andrew Lazarus Dec 11 '14 at 1:31
  • Do you have a readable source for that? Per the linked Wikipedia article, the 1871 act repealed the charters of both Washington and Georgetown. – lambshaanxy Dec 11 '14 at 2:05
  • Bottom of page 27 of the Source link in the previous comment. The charter of independent self-government was revoked; the city itself remains as a legal entity. – Andrew Lazarus Dec 11 '14 at 3:14

You have asked for the 'formal name' of Washington, DC...

As shown in the diploma below, it's "Washington, District of Columbia" and "Washington, in the District of Columbia". While the university's existence is derived from an act of Congress, the location was "the Columbian College in the District of Columbia" (no city).

The contemporary use of "Washington, District of Columbia" reflects the formal tone and language of the document, and hence is likely to be the 'most formal' (as opposed to legal or common name).

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