To ‘s’ or not to ‘s’: Does anyone know how to pronounce Des Moines, WA?
A few weeks ago, I interviewed a guy named DJ Taylor for a story I was working on.
“I live in Des Moines, Washington,” Taylor said while formally introducing himself.
I immediately noticed that he didn’t pronounce the ‘s’ at the end of Moines.
“Don’t you people pronounce it Des Moines?” I asked, emphasizing the ‘s.’ “That’s what I was told.”
“Only if they’re incorrect,” Taylor replied. “If they’re absolute philistines, then yes. It’s named after the one in Iowa, so if you are going to pronounce it correctly, you’ve got to pronounce it Des Moines.”
I know that the s’s are silent in Des Moines, Iowa. But when I moved to Seattle in 2005, to work as a reporter for KIRO Newsradio, I had to quickly learn a lot of unfamiliar names on the map. Early on, I did a live report about something happening in Sequim, pronouncing it ‘seh-quee-im.’ After approximately 400 billion listeners called in to correct my pronunciation, I made sure to get my Puyallups and Duvalls straight. And I was specifically told that the Puget Sound waterfront town south of the airport is pronounced Des Moines, with an audible ‘s’ on the end.
“I can tell you that I’ve lived in Des Moines for pretty much my entire life and I have always heard it pronounced Des Moines,” said Taylor, not pronouncing the ‘s.’ “Except by people who are not originally from Des Moines.”
As confident as Taylor was, I needed an official answer. So I called the City of Des Moines, Washington.
“Thank you for calling the City of Des Moines,” said the man on the recorded message, very clearly pronouncing the ‘s.’
I selected the extension for the city clerk and got her voicemail. When she said Des Moines, the ‘s’ was silent. Two minutes into my investigation and there’s already drama.
I needed a tie-breaker, so I called the city manager. When Michael Matthias answered the phone, I explained the situation and asked him what the official pronunciation is.
“That’s a great question,” said Matthias, chuckling. “I think it’s personal preference.”
I started to wonder if anyone knew the answer.
“The best person to talk to would be our mayor,” Matthias said.
I called Mayor Matt Mahoney, who graciously offered to do the interview while on vacation.
“Hey, can my mom join us?” Mayor Mahoney asked. “She was a resident of Des Moines back in the 60s.”
For those keeping score at home, Mayor Mahoney pronounced the ‘s.’ But then, seconds later, while stating his name and title on the record, he said Des Moines with a silent ‘s.’
“So far, you’ve said it two different ways,” I accused the mayor, laughing.
“That’s because I’m a politician and I don’t want to cross the line or offend either one of our parties in town,” Mayor Mahoney replied. “It’s quite the feud. I like to use verbiage like ‘our gem by the sea,’ because in certain circles you can get ostracized. So I try and do the politically correct thing.”
Is there an official pronunciation?
“Here’s the deal,” the mayor said. “Our history book, the proclamation that was done some time ago, says Des Moines (silent ‘s’), which if you had any French language training you wouldn’t pronounce the s’s. But locals say Des Moines (emphasis on the ‘s’).”
Mayor Mahoney thinks he knows where the confusion came from.
“There were a bunch of farmers and people from Des Moines, Iowa,” he explained. “They’re the ones who originally invested and bought the property from a homesteader. I’m told, in their circle of conversation, if they were going ‘Des Moines and Des Moines’ nobody knew if it was Washington or Iowa. So they started Des Moines (silent ‘s’) and Des Moines (pronounced ‘s’) to be able to tell the difference.”
Despite all efforts to be politically correct, the mayor does have a preference.
“I’m of the persona of Des Moines (silent ‘s’) because of my French training in high school. If they [pronounce the ‘s’] why don’t they go ‘Dez Moinez?’ You know, pronounce the ‘s’ on the first word! So they’re breaking their own rule in that regard. But it can get ugly with two schools of thought in our community,” Mahoney laughed.
Especially when those two schools of thought exist in a single-family.
“I’m Sandy Minor,” said Mayor Mahoney’s mother. “When Matt was tiny, we actually lived in Des Moines (pronounced ‘s’), Washington, for a short time.”
Minor now lives in southern California, but she remains Team Des MoineS.
“I’m not changing!” she said, defiantly.
In a black and white world, it’s nice to know you can still choose your own adventure.
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- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.