A little more than a year ago, in my monthly column for Seattle magazine, I put forward the idea that Seattle needs a new nickname. We’ve been Queen City, Jet City and since the ’80s, rather lamely I think, The Emerald City. It felt like it was time for a change now that we’re a decade and a half into a new century.
Suggestions flowed in: Next City, Cloud City, Rain City, Yuppie Gulch, Pothole City, Raintopia, Egotopia, Salmon City on the Salish Sea, Consensusville, Process City, Gateway to Factoria, Corporate Whoreville, The Platinum City, Ten-Percenterville, Sea Atoll, Babylon and Bertha’s Folly were some of them. You can see that dreamers, grumps and trolls had a field day.
A moniker is clearly a means by which the populace, as it should, can express itself on the issues: climate, income inequality and our collective stupidity. Boiled down to a slogan, it all seems so petty. Nothing has really emerged, so this year, I’m thinking maybe we should Go Big.
Maybe instead of a new nickname, we need a new name. Period.
Someone is already working on that.
Meet Richard Haag. He’s one of America’s foremost landscape architects, and at 91 years old, still working, still thinking and creating. He was one of the saviors of Pike Place Market, with Victor Steinbrueck. He has shaped the city, quite literally, like no one else. He was the landscape architect who made over Seattle Center after the 1962 World’s Fair; he planned the beautiful Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island and the Battelle campus in Laurelhurst; he designed Victor Steinbrueck Park, which gave the common man a fantastic view of Elliott Bay more efficiently, more democratically and much less expensively than the current proposed waterfront redo.
Haag is probably best known for one of our greatest public treasures, the landmark Gas Works Park, which is acknowledged internationally as an extraordinary example of urban adaptation, and a great place to fly kites.
The landscape architect is also one of the instigators of a quiet campaign to change the name of Seattle to “Sealth.”
New York was another early name for the city, but quickly got laughed out of town. It is certainly more poetic than Duwamps, or Duwumps, another early name for Seattle. Restoring the name Greater Duwamps still has an advocate or two, among them sportswriter Art Thiel, who has said that it has the virtues of being indigenous, clunky, contrarian, and sounding like “something in a windstorm crashing down on a yard/deck/car/park/road.” What could be more Seattle than soggy-sounding Duwamps?
But pioneers wanted to honor Chief Seattle, who had been so helpful during the early days of the settlement.
There has been a lot of argument over how the chief’s name was actually pronounced in his native Lushootseed language. Some say “Seattle” is the best approximation; others say “Sealth” (as in “health”) is. The earliest written European recording of his name was “Sea-alt,” or “Sea-yalt.” Some tribal members have said that the original pronunciation in Seattle’s native tongue would be more like “Sea-a-thhll” or “Sl-ahl.” The Northwest heritage website Historylink.org says the correct pronunciation is closer to “See-ahlsh.”
The chief’s burial marker in Suquamish bears his baptismal name, Noah Sealth. Sealth, some argue, is a mispronunciation bestowed by the Catholic missionary who baptized him. Still, we have a Chief Sealth High School and a ferry named Sealth.
The late historian Bill Speidel said it was important that the pronunciation of the city’s name be slightly wrong so that the chief would not spin in his grave every time his name was spoken, attributing that belief to the local tribes. If that’s true, either Seattle or Sealth seem safe bets. So which is more euphonious?
Simplicity, Haag argues, is a good thing. Sealth has that virtue over the rattling word Seattle. “Speak or whisper ‘Sealth’ in front of a mirror — it just flows out, effortless…. Sealth will be preferred by persons challenged by enunciation, by poets, graphic designers, typesetters, word processors, text messengers.”
Sealth is like an exhalation, a breath of the fresh, wet air that sustains us.
Haag also reminds us that many major cities have changed their names: Istanbul, Turkey, was once called Constantinople; Bombay, India, is now Mumbai. But Haag’s strategy isn’t to pass a resolution. “The transition is voluntary,” he says. There would be “no costly referendums,” no initiatives or legal action. He encourages people to simply start using it in return addresses, graphic design, and in conversation.
In other words, make the change to Sealth by stealth. “There is no sign-up, no dues. You can automatically support this bottom-up movement by simply substituting Sealth for Seattle at every chance.” He predicts: “Gradually, a grassroots consensus will prevail. No matter if it takes two generations.”
As we know here, change in this city can take time.
This column originally appeared in the April edition of Seattle magazine.