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Why is the Bronx called THE Bronx?

Dear Cecil:

Why is the New York borough of the Bronx not simply called "Bronx"? I've consulted encyclopedias, native New Yorkers, and even a linguist at a leading university. So far all I've gotten is a partial explanation. At the turn of the century when the five boroughs were consolidated into one city, the large parcel of land north of Manhattan was owned by a wealthy family named Broncks. When city dwellers wanted to escape suburbia, they went up to the Broncks farm or estate. Later the spelling was changed to Bronx. But I'm sure there's more to it than that. Cecil, if I don't get an answer by August 11, the Lord's gonna call me home.

Norman W., Chicago

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I hope you like the Lord’s digs better than your previous place of residence, Norm, because I’m a little late. You know you can’t rush these things.

You got a few facts scrambled on the Bronx story. The name of the wealthy family was Bronck (sometimes spelled Bronk). The clan’s patriarch, Jonas, settled on 500 acres north of the Harlem River in 1639 and promptly affixed his surname to various features of the local geography, notably the Bronx River.

As one of his descendants explained, “The termination of `x’ merely indicates the possessive case. Instead of writing Bronk’s River or Bronk’s farm, the Dutch took the phonetic short cut and made `x’ do duty for the fusion of `k’ and `s’; extremely simple, and a space saver too. Thus, when Jonas impressed his own family nomenclature on the region he settled, the Aquahung River became Bronk’s River — the Bronx, as it remains today, correctly expressed in Dutch.”

As far as Cecil can tell, the name “the Bronx” didn’t signify the entire area now known as the Bronx until late in the 19th century.

In 1874 about 20 square miles of mainland Westchester county was annexed to New York City. This region was known thereafter as the Annexed District of the Bronx, in apparent reference to the Bronx River, then the district’s eastern border.

In 1898 the Annexed District became part of the Borough of the Bronx — presumably still referring to the river. After a while, however, people forgot about the river and began casually referring to the entire borough as “the Bronx.” The use of “the,” in other words, is simply a historical accident.

Cecil Adams

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