Dumbarton or Dunbarton?

Dumbarton Oaks

Last week, William Offut made the case in the Washington Post that the name Dumbarton, as used by various Georgetown locales, is incorrect and that they should all use the name Dunbarton.

Offut’s argument boils down to an assertion that the name is at its heart a joke. Ninian Beall, who came to own all the land that became Georgetown, was a Scotsman who fought for Charles II against Oliver Cromwell after the fall and execution of Charles I. Beall was there when a greatly outnumbered English army destroyed the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar. Offut claims that when Beall obtained the land that became Georgetown decades later, he was making a joke on the name Dunbar when he called the plot the “Rock of Dunbarton”

This may be a familiar argument to longtime Georgetown Metropolitan readers. It’s the same one Offut make in a comment here five years ago.

Is it correct though?

It’s hard to tell. As GM wrote five years ago, the name of the street used to sometimes be called Dunbarton. And, old records do refer to the land grant as “Rock of Dunbarton”. But plenty of old records use Dumbarton or Rock of Dumbarton, too.

Interestingly, the switch was reflected back in Scotland too. The town of Dumbarton is in the county of Dunbartonshire. Why’s that? Because prior to the late 19th century, the terms were used interchangeably. Only in the 19th century did many names become “standardized”. This is a common story. It’s why a lot of old sources call it Tennalytown or Potowmack.

It seems that when they decided to settle on a spelling, they looked to the root of the word Dumbarton/Dunbarton, which is the Scottish Gaelic “Dùn Breatainn” (Fort of the British). Since the root was spelled with an “n” the county settled on that spelling. But it seems that more people called the town Dumbarton, and they didn’t feel like changing it, so they stuck with the “m”.

All that happened in the backdrop of when Dunbarton here in Georgetown became Dumbarton. And there definitely was a switch. When you read articles from the 1930s talking about the Rock of Dumbarton or Dumbarton Ave., they frequently mention how it was formerly spelled with an “n”.

But there’s no discussion anywhere that GM has found tying the name back to the Battle of Dunbar. Could it be? Maybe, but you’d have to produce more than a guess to believe it.


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