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Why is there an I Street and a K Street but no J Street in Washington, D.C.?

Dear Cecil:

Why is there an I Street and a K Street but no J Street in Washington, D.C.? At least one other federally spawned burg, Anchorage, Alaska, uses a similar street-naming scheme also lacking J. My daughter claimed the streets were named before the invention of Js, but recanted that theory upon reaching junior high school.

John Beard, Arlington, Virginia

Cecil replies:

That’s what you get for subjecting her to higher education — her first guess was a lot closer to the mark than her second. J is a late addition to the alphabet, having initially been introduced as an alternative form of I. It began to be used to signify our modern consonant J around 1600, but the two letters continued to be used interchangeably for years thereafter, e.g., jngeniously, ieweller. As late as 1820 some dictionaries still weren’t alphabetizing I and J words separately.

D.C. planner Pierre L’Enfant undoubtedly didn’t include a J Street because he considered I and J basically the same letter. (It certainly wasn’t because he disliked the statesman John Jay, as legend has it.) A similar confusion attended the letters U and V, which were also used interchangeably. The D.C. plan included both U and V streets, but using capital V to indicate both U and V on buildings (e.g., VNITED STATES POST OFFICE) survived until the 1930s, no doubt in imitation of such classical inscriptions as IVLIVS CAESAR.

From the Teeming Millions

Dear Cecil:

Your item on the letters I and J, U and V was not the last word (and no doubt what I have to add won’t be either). J and V were the consonantal forms of I and U, respectively (e.g., as in “juventus”). V in Latin was pronounced like W in English, and J was pronounced like Y in English.

— Stewart Colten, Arlington, Virginia

Sorry, Stewart. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, U and V were used “without clear distinction in value, each of them being used to denote either the vowel u or the consonant v. The practice with regard to the employment of the two forms varied considerably, but the general tendency was to write v initially and u in other positions, regardless of phonetic considerations.” The story with I and J is more complex, but the OED lists many instances of J being used as a vowel.

Cecil Adams

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