Debate over 'PG' heats up in county


HYATTSVILLE -- Sure, call that spy agency the CIA. Go ahead, drive into Baltimore on the JFX. But when speaking of PG County(oops - Prince George's County), don't be snooping for shortcuts.

That's the message from county officials, amid an intensifying debate over what's in a name.

How serious are they?

In Annapolis this year, when any member of the House of Delegates dared say "PG" during floor debate, the county's delegation of 20 cried "Prince George's" in unison.

The local economic development corporation has warned new businesses that they had better use the county's full name.

And County Council President Dorothy Bailey says she'll spurn speakers at meetings who use "PG" freely. "People making budget requests - by the third time they say 'PG,' I've lost whatever the request was," Bailey says. "I can't hear you."

County officials call the issue one of pride and image. "PG," they say, is disrespectful, even harking to the Jim Crow era when many whites called blacks by shortened names rather than by their proper ones.

The long-used shortened title is also seen as conjuring images of old Prince George's County, one that was agrarian and - in the eyes of some - racially intolerant.

"Prince George's," says Bailey, seems elegant, sophisticated, illustrative of today.

"We want the old image out, the image of rural, uneducated, unsafe people riding around in pickup trucks with pistols," she says. "We're as cosmopolitan as we want to be, and as urban as we want to be."

Besides, who gives other counties nicknames?

"You never hear anyone saying MoCo or MC [for Montgomery] or PW [for Prince William in Virginia]," says Shelby Burch, president of the Prince George's Public Relations Association, which is the mouthpiece of county government and began a campaign three years ago to stop people from using the initials.

"When you hear people saying PG, it goes up your spine," adds Burch. "You can feel it."

The debate has been brewing in some circles for more than 20 years, but its intensity seems to be rising.

Before this year, the local delegation to the State House never cut off debates to make their point. County leaders also brag that residents are finally changing old habits when referring to businesses - such as Prince George's Plaza, a shopping mall in Hyattsville.

But not everybody has caught on.

"It's PG Plaza," says 16-year-old Brenda Oliva, lingering in the mall's parking lot with a friend. "Prince George's sounds too long."

Parked outside the mall, Corinne Rawlins was waiting for her 16-year-old son, who had asked to be driven to PG (not Prince George's) Plaza for a haircut. "I think I call it PG County," adds Rawlins, though she's heard of the anti-PG fervor.

At P.G. Liquors in Bladensburg, nobody seemed aware of the campaign. Owner KamaljeetSinghdidn't know how his store got its name - he bought it in 1996 - but earnestly pointed out that, just maybe, it was named for someone with the initials "PG" and not for the county at all.

Singh then referred to his state license to operate a business.

"If they had a problem," he says, "they shouldn't have registered the name."

A tobacco society two centuries ago, Prince George's County has become one of Washington's staple suburbs and a place often cited nationally as a successful experiment in growing economic prosperity among middle-class blacks.

"Now that we've become one of the most powerful counties in Maryland, you want that level of respect," says Del. Rushern L. Baker, leader of the all-Democratic county House delegation.

Baker admits he once used "PG" when taking notes or penning remarks before a speech, but began recently to write out the full name even in such instances, lest a colleague peek.

Just across the border from Prince George's in Montgomery County - outside the Burtonsville Shopping Center - word of the name debate hadn't spread. But shoppers, once they learned of Prince George's officials' concerns, were receptive.

"Yeah," said Renee Kaalund, a Burtonsville paralegal, "if someone called me 'R' instead of Renee, it would make you feel insignificant."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan needed no prodding.

"Not OK to call it PG," Duncan says. He adds that his staff never uses the initials. "We're trying to be good neighbors."

Sun staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

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