What’s in a Name…or Number?

The truth behind the Mount Vernon name, our resilient area code, and the “wedge” issue.

Q: It makes sense to me that there are some really common town names—Middletown, for example—but I know of at least four different Mount Vernons in four different states (New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Ohio). Why is that name so common?
—Sam Berlin, Mount Vernon

A: We hate to reference Wikipedia if we don’t have to, but, for pure numerical data, we’re okay with it. According to the überpedia, there are 23 Mount Vernons throughout the country. And, according to various other sources (available upon request, of course), the reason at least our Mount Vernon is named as such is exactly what you would think—it’s an homage to George Washington’s Virginia estate. Don’t believe us? Consider that Metro-North’s Wakefield train station, which is virtually in Mount Vernon, is named after George Washington’s birth house. And the nearby area formally known as “Washingtonville” was, well, also named after the president.

So, you ask, where did the Virginia plantation get its name? According to the estate’s official website, “Washington’s older half-brother, Lawrence, who renamed the property Mount Vernon after his commanding officer, Admiral Edward Vernon of the British navy.” And, as for Ohio’s Mount Vernon—who cares? Who goes to Ohio?

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Q: How come Westchester was the only “914” place that was allowed to keep the area code when every other place switched to “845” about 10 to 12 years ago?
—Bruce Johnson, Tuckahoe

A: Operator…Westchester 411, please. Okay, first a brief history of telephone numbers (it’s more fun than you think). In the old switchboard days, telephone numbers would have seven characters—the first two were letters, the next five numbers. The letters generally corresponded to a location—the most famous being “[PE]nnsylvania 6-5000,” which linked to the Hotel Pennsylvania in New York (and which was also the title of a huge swing-era hit by Glenn Miller). Eventually, the system went completely numerical, which, without going into specifics, explains why your phone’s dial pad has letters and numbers.

Area codes were designed to clump local numbers into big groups. Now, picture a rotary phone. It requires much shorter spins of the rotor to dial certain numbers. This is why highly populated cities have quickly dialable area codes such as 212 (New York), 213 (Los Angeles), and 215 (Philly). Original area codes all had a “1” or “0” in the middle. And Westchester, Long Island, and surrounding areas outside of the city got 914. No love, right?

As phone use expanded, most of the original systems for number allocation fell apart. Clusters of users under a single area code were split and some given a new code, or the boundaries of the cluster expanded or overlapped. Long Island got sliced off 914 in 1951 and, in 2000, nine of the 10 counties then using 914 were demoted to 845 (cell numbers were excluded). But why did Westchester not suffer the indignity of a new three-digit set? According to a New York Times interview with a representative of the Public Service Commission, ‘’Westchester had a greater number of businesses and cellular phone users that would have been disrupted.’’ We think it’s just because we’re cooler.

Q: What is the origin of the term “wedge” (to describe a hero or submarine sandwich), and why is it seemingly used only in the Westchester area?
—Timothy Bertucci, Harrison

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A: Talk about a “wedge” issue (as usual, sorry). The answer was harder to find than you might think. We scoured old newspapers, pored over linguistics articles, and expensed a lot of sandwiches. The prevailing view is that the term originated at Landi’s grocery store in Yonkers. During the 1920s, the store was family-run, but the matriarch of the Landi family, who spoke very little English, had trouble pronouncing the word “sandwich.” Instead, she referred to them as “witches” or “wedges,” and the name stuck.

But why didn’t the rest of the sandwich-loving universe adopt the phrase? For that answer, we turned to John V. Singler, professor of linguistics at NYU. Singler explains that, when the term “wedge” came along, “there were already terms out there. Had it been an item for which people beyond Westchester didn’t have a term, they might have adopted this one. But getting them to abandon a term they already had for a new one would have been a harder sell—especially if they’d never been to Landi’s.” Singler also points out that “linguistic behavior—if it’s going to spread—tends to spread from cities outward.” Thus, though a relatively big city, Yonkers was probably not big enough to be the epicenter of a new term.

Top of the Page: George Washington on his plantation, the original Mount Vernon, in Virginia.

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