Philadelphia’s Linguistic Infrastructure

Avery M. Johnston, C’22

Why does every culture, despite whatever other differences may arise between them, give names to the places that are significant to them? This phenomenon could be a result of a variety of factors: according to a United Nations conference on the social and cultural value of place names, toponyms are “deictic or monoreferential” [1]. They are “an essential linguistic tool that most people use many times a day … they function on several levels,” [2] including the cognitive level, an emotive level, an ideological level, and a community-creating level. This variety of uses and human associations for place names seems to indicate that place names are highly important to one’s conception of a locality. Lauret Savoy, in her reflection, “What’s in a Name?” vividly expresses the significance of all sorts of names in her own life. She says, “Word-moments could blaze with an intensity that seemed to concentrate all life,” [3] and continues, describing how names transport her across the world even though she does not physically move. Names have rich, expressive associations—they matter to people, and history can be molded by them [4]. Perhaps due to this high cognitive, emotional, ideological, and communal valuation of toponyms, they have recently become a prominent cultural issue, especially in America. For instance, following student protests, Yale University decided to rename one of its residential halls (previously named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun), [5] and debates have long-raged regarding the names of public schools such as Woodrow Wilson High School in Oregon [6].

Figure 1: Denali, the name of which was officially changed from Mt. McKinley by President Barack Obama in 2011, photo Becky Bohrer, 2017 for AP,

It is evident that place names—whether they be city names, building names, school names, or some other toponym—matter a lot to the American public. It makes sense, as place names are not only evidence of the historical life of a place, but also bleed into many people’s daily lives today, and perhaps even the very culture of a place. For us residents of the city, “Philadelphia” is almost certainly one of the most salient toponyms in our daily lives. Its linguistic, historical, and religious roots form the foundation of our city, our perceptions of it, and even our lived experiences within it to an extent.

Though many residents (and visitors) of Philadelphia would be able to easily explain that Philly is the “City of Brotherly Love,” and perhaps even know that the city’s name comes from the Ancient Greek words for “brother” and “love,” most citizens likely do not know the historical background of this name outside of the United States, or the city’s founder’s rationale for its name.

The name “Philadelphia” is indeed derived from the Greek words φιλά, which means “one who loves,” and δέλφος, which means “brother,” but William Penn, the founder of the city, certainly did not come up with this word himself. There is scholarly debate regarding Penn’s true motive(s) for naming the city, and this will be further discussed below, but scholars do know that there was certainly an ancient city in what is now contemporary Turkey that was once called φιλαδέλφεια (Philadelphia). The purported founding of said city is folkloric: some claim that the ancient king of the region, Eumenes II, called his brother, Attalus II, Φιλάδελφος (Philadelphus) due to Attalus’ devotion to him, and as a result of this devotion, named a city after him.

Figure 2: David Jeremiah, “Modern Day Turkey.” 2019, “Seven Churches of Revelation Bible Study,”,

For example, Polybius (c. 200–c. 118 BC), an ancient Greek historian, in his Histories, speaks of Attalus II’s devotion to his brother: “In 168/167, for instance, the senate, annoyed with Eumenes II of Pergamum… in an attempt to win over his brother, Attalus, promised to hand over [two cities]—a promise they broke as soon as they saw that Attalus had decided not to abandon his brother” [7]. Notable historian George A. Barton, however, suggests that this was not necessarily the case. In his scholarly opinion, the city was actually founded by Attalus II himself out of his personal devotion to Eumenes II [8]. Another scholar Colin J. Hemer believes that it is not possible to know whether either of the brothers actually founded the city of Philadelphia [9]. Despite this, Hemer also points out the historical manifestations of the love the city was named for: the cities of Eumenea (named for the elder brother) and Philadelphia (named for the younger) both celebrated games in commemoration of the brotherly love between them “as late as the third century AD” [10]. Even though one cannot know with precision the complete origin-story of the ancient Philadelphia due to a lack of historical consensus—it is for this reason that the founding of the city is folkloric— one can acknowledge that the city at least seemed to operate in the spirit of brotherly love.

This very city is discussed in the biblical book of Revelation, written by St. John of Patmos. It says:

8 ‘I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 … Behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet, and they will learn that I have loved you. 10 Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.

Hemer posits that Philadelphia was a sort of “missionary” city, due to the reference to the “open door” in verse 8—which could imply evangelism [11]. He also calls attention to the city’s close associations with the New Jerusalem in the text, which, in combination with St. John’s complimentary language toward the city, indicates an overall positive biblical portrayal of it [12].

There are not many archaeological remains from ancient Philadelphia (called Alasehir in modern-day Turkey) apart from the remains of some walls, the acropolis, the theatre, and a basilica, though remains from surrounding cities that remain religiously noteworthy today [13]. Christian pilgrims travel to Alasehir even though there are not many physical remains, however, in order to tangibly experience the city that St. John wrote about with such approval [14]. This convoluted history of the city matters for the question at hand now: Why would William Penn use the name of this ancient city in particular? Why not Ephesus or Nicaea, two other arguably more important cities to the Christian tradition and archaeology, for example?

Figure 3: Depiction of the Seven Churches of Revelation (detail), Zondervan Academic, 2018. revelation-why-they-matter-and-what-we-can-learn.

In naming Philadelphia, William Penn, a devoted Quaker and therefore a proponent of religious freedom, “evoked three potent images: brotherhood, a prosperous port, and Christianity” according to Philadelphia historian Roger D. Simon [15]. I tend to largely agree with this evaluation, apart from the bit about the “prosperous port.” The association with brotherhood can of course be easily explained through an understanding of the Philadelphia in Asia Minor, which, as described in depth above, embodied brotherly love and morality despite its quasi-mythic foundation story. I have no problem agreeing with the notion that Philadelphia was a bustling trade center, and therefore prosperous, but I do not think that this is the association that modern Philadelphians nor William Penn would consider to be the most central or apparent. In fact, I would argue that associating the name “Philadelphia” with wealth and material prosperity is inconsistent with Penn’s values, and contrary to his reasoning in naming the city. The name’s ties to Christianity are much more evident, and would have been more salient to Penn himself. These ties can be partially explained by the city’s presence in the biblical narrative, but according to scholar Christie L. Maloyed, there is more to the story.

Although Penn did intend to guarantee his citizens freedom of religion, he also wanted to ensure civic order, and the love of civic virtues: In his colony, he intended to couple the traditions of religious liberty and Quaker political thought for the sake of creating a “liberal civil religion,” to encourage both individual freedom and righteousness [16]. The laws Penn created and the vision for his colony and likewise, his city, was undeniably Quaker, then, as he strove to promote its values without forcing his citizens to abide by all of the Christian “rules” [17]. Due to his own experience of religious persecution in England, religious liberty was still of the utmost importance to Penn. In 1704, he wrote to Roger Mompesson, saying:

I went thither to lay the foundation of a free colony for all mankind, that should go thither… not that I would lessen the civil liberties of others because of their persuasion, but screen and defend our own from any infringement on that account. The charter I granted was intended to shelter them against a violent or arbitrary governor imposed upon us…[18].

Accordingly, perhaps one could say that he did so out of a dedication to brotherly love of his fellow future Philadelphians. Penn formed a city and a state that did not have an official state religion, but one which still had a certain commitment to the Christian values he held dear and which he considered to be integral to the functioning of society and the well-being of individuals. Why “Philadelphia,” then?

Penn doubtless knew about the reference to the old Philadelphia in Revelation, and its positive associations [19]. While it is much less certain that he knew precisely why it was given its name, he unquestionably appreciated its meaning. It typified the sort of city and state that he endeavored to create; one which was filled with righteousness, like the Philadelphian Christians referred to in Revelation, but also one in which the citizens were committed to loving one another despite their doctrinal differences.

His choice was also part of a larger classical trend in early America. The eventual revolutionary writers, leaders, and military-men obviously drew on classical inspiration in creating their newly independent country, but during the time of Penn’s charter, there was a general emphasis on the value of a classically based education, especially for “educated gentlemen” [20]. Classical toponyms thus proliferated in America’s early years, and Penn’s naming of Philadelphia takes its place in the long list of classically inspired place-names that still persist to this day in the US, including Annapolis, Maryland, Arcadia, New York, Eureka, California, Media, Pennsylvania, and Athens, Georgia [21]. Scholar Wilbur Zelinsky even suggests there is a “Classical Belt” extending through central New York to central Kansas which first spread from mother to “daughter” towns through the movement of people and the movement of the classical idea alone [22]. In fact, by 1925, Pennsylvania had risen to the top spot on the ranking of the states with the largest number of classical toponyms [23]. There were a few other classical toponyms within Philadelphia in the 1800s as well, according to the city’s department of records’ “Philadelphia Neighborhoods and Place Names” [24].

Etymologically, “Philadelphia” recalls feelings of close, warm, familial affection, and this notion has become, in a way, a part of the fabric of the city. Our love statues, banding together for Philly sports, and the various ways in which the city and its people welcome those from various backgrounds, speaks to the enduring nature of Penn’s “brotherly” vision for his city [25]. Although Penn’s virtue-based, Christian vision for the city does not have as much of a place in the public imagination, the name is still associated with this vision, and with its use in St. John’s Book of Revelation. The name is therefore an unintentional monument to Penn’s vision and the associated feelings and goals, and to Asia Minor’s Philadelphia of the past. Philadelphia’s name is also an unintentional monument to the classical period, and early America’s appreciation for this period. In his piece on classical place-names, Sage argues that this aspect of our American culture and geography is significant enough that it ought to be remembered with toponyms, because they can remind of our country’s distinctiveness and diversity, even if we have not completely lived up to our names and their lessons, in addition to helping Americans to remember the country’s connections to the classical world [26].

This grounding in history is good; despite the morally complicated past of the classical world, it can perhaps remind us that we, too, are nowhere near ethical perfection, and we can continue to strive to better our country, our state, and our city. Philadelphia does not live up to its name completely—the city is riddled with infrastructural, neighborly, and other significant problems. The name, then, is a sort of monument to the varied failures of the city as well. Linguistically, perhaps it does conjure an image of admirable brotherly love and virtue, but we, as its citizens, are left to address the question of how to help our Philadelphia truly live up to Penn’s high-minded goals for her.



[1] Norway, “The Social and Cultural Value of Place Names,” Eighth United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Place Names (Berlin, 2002), 2.

[2] Norway, 2.

[3] Lauret Savoy, “What’s in a Name?,” in Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2015), 69.

[4] For example, Savoy touches on the meaning of some Native American place-names in the US and their persistence even today.

[5] Ryan Brooks, “Renaming University Buildings with Racist Namesakes is an Uphill Battle,” USA Today, 14 February 2017.

[6] Giselle Lamarr, “Debate Over Renaming Schools Remains Impassioned Almost a Year after George Floyd’s Death,” ABC News, March 14, 2021.

[7] Polybius, “The Historian as Homeric Hero,” in Histories (Oxford: OUP, 2010), 159.

[8] George Barton, “Archeology and the Bible,” Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union (1916): 229.

[9] Colin J. Hemer, “Chapter 8: Philadelphia,” in Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting, (Sheffield: University of Sheffield Press, 1986: 153.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Katharine Eugenia Jones, “Expeditions: The churches of Revelation: La Odicea, Smyrna, and Philadelphia,” Biblical Archaeology Review 25, no. 1 (1999): 77.

[14] Susanne Güsten, “Turkey Cultivates Sites of its Christian Heritage,” New York Times, 4 May 2011,

[15] Roger D. Simon, “Establishing a Community/Building an Economy: Beginning to 1800,” in Philadelphia: A Brief History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017), 3.

[16] Christie L. Maloyed, “A Liberal Civic Religion: William Penn’s Holy Experiment, Journal of Church and State 55, no. 4 (August 2013): 669–89. Penn also specifically called Pennsylvania his “holy experiment.”

[17] Andrew Murphy. “The Limits and Promise of Political Theorizing: William Penn and the Founding of Pennsylvania,” History of Political Thought 34, no. 4 (2013): 642.

[18] William Penn, “William Penn to Roger Mompesson,” in Correspondence Between William Penn and James Logan, Secretary of the Province of Pennsylvania, and Others, 1700–1750, ed. Edward Armstrong (Philadelphia: History Society of Pennsylvania, 1870), 373.

[19] William Penn, “Planning for a New Colony: March-December 1681, #46 Notes,” in The Papers of William Penn, Volume 2: 1680–1684, eds. Richard Dunn et al. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982), 79–134, 130.

[20] Edwin Miles, “The Young American Nation and the Classical World,” Journal of the History of Ideas 35, no. 2 (1974): 259.

[21] Wilbur Zelinsky, “Classical Town Names in the United States: The Historical Geography of an American Idea,” Geographical Review 57, no. 4 (1967): 471.

[22] Zelinsky, 472, 479, 487. Also see page 491 for a wonderfully graphed depiction of the temporal spread of classical town names in America as of 1910.

[23] Evan T. Sage,“Classical Place-Names in America,” American Speech 4, no. 4 (1929), 264.

[24] These included “Adelphi,” which was a few miles north of Haddington along Indian Run (there is no date of reference for this location), and Andorra, which was between the Wissahickon Creek and the Schuylkill River in 1861.

[25] See for evidence of the popular association between the LOVE statues and “The City of Brotherly Love.” Though city hall does not seem to advertise this association, the tourist bureau certainly does.

[26] Sage, “Classical Place-Names in America,” 271.