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I'm curious about the numerous civic names (at least in Canada) which are in the 'of' form, by which I mean: City of Toronto, County of Wellington, etc.

To me, this form sounds antiquated. I can accept when 'of' is adding some value to the phrase, like 'hall of fame', 'house of cards', but when it's merely referencing a civic name, where's the value? It's Toronto. It's Wellington County. No 'of' needed!

I assume that these sorts of expressions have been part of the language for a long time, but am curious as to how and when this form may have originated.

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+1, the same phenomenon happens in Italy, too. –  user19148 Jun 24 '13 at 18:10
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The City of London was granted its Charter in 1075, so it's earlier than that. I suspect the origin is lost in the mists of Latin and Old English. –  Andrew Leach Jun 24 '13 at 18:23

3 Answers 3

These formal styles (which are not generally employed in speech) reflect an ancient usage inherited from the Old World and maintained in legal forms because the guiding principle in Common Law is precedent — or, in the vernacular, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

There are two fundamental reasons for preserving these styles:

  1. In law, particularly administrative law, it is of the first importance to know what sort of entity you are dealing with or speaking of, because different entities have different legal structures and liabilities and privileges. Accordingly, it has been since classical times a common practice to include a 'status' term -city, town, borough, county, state- in formal documents.

  2. Ordinary names often designate multiple entities which it is important to distinguish. The City of London is not the same as Greater London, "New York" may mean either the City of New York or the State of New York, "Oxford" may mean either the county or the city. I myself live in "St. Louis", but in the County of St. Louis, not the City of St. Louis, which seceded from the County in 1877. You have to know who can come after you for taxes.

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When I am speaking about Cleveland or Wherever, I would be speaking about the environs and various things around and about Cleveland or Wherever.

When I am speaking about the City of Wherever, however, I am talking about a specific municipal corporation with certain geographic limits.

"In Toronto, the trash and police services are provided by the City of Toronto."

That is very common usage that I think is needed for clarity. A city or county or whatever is also a legal entity, and the "of" is commonly used to distinguish between the two.

EDIT: Now that I've provided this, I realize you are more interested in the origin. Other than my suggestion of clarity to distinguish between an place and a legal entity, I don't have any suggestions in that regard. Leaving this up anyway.

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except that it would be "garbage" service, not "trash" :-) –  Kate Gregory Jun 26 '13 at 1:49
    
@KateGregory Yes. "Garbage service" or "trash service". We might not want to imply the City was providing the trash. LOL. –  mikeY Jul 12 '13 at 19:48

This usage was originated in the Middle Ages. Europe was divided into many small countries (various duchies, kingdoms and so on). Every one has its own duke, or king, or baron. So "city of something" simply referred to the main city of that small province where the landlord was living. Usually it was fortified and had a castle, so people from surrounding area could seek protection in the city.

Since then it came into several European languages and spread around the world.

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Thanks for answering. Answers should be supported by facts, references, or specific expertise. Can you provide some references which support your answer that this usage originated in the Middle Ages. Thanks. –  MετάEd Jun 26 '13 at 3:11

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