On the Liberty Bell, it's spelled Pensylvania. Likewise on plenty of maps from the colonial days.

When did it become Pennsylvania (with three n's)?

  • It says "sic" after "Pensylvania" on the Liberty Bell link you've cited.
    – Tragicomic
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 0:20
  • @Tragicomic - please see the picture in my answer. there is no [sic]. Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 0:34
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    @Tragicomic "Sic" is used to indicate that what could potentially be read as a typo is actually intentional. In this case, it is used to indicate that the Liberty Bell actually spells it that way (as opposed to the author making a typo).
    – Jason C
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 7:33
  • @JasonC, right. Don't know what I was thinking. My apologies, Joe.
    – Tragicomic
    Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 18:16
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is a history question specific to a place name, rather than to the English language in general.
    – David
    Commented May 17, 2018 at 20:54

4 Answers 4


While English spelling became more and more standardized after the printing press was introduced in 1475, it was not considered important until the 19th century. In the U.S., universal standardization was spurred by Noah Webster's ideologically motivated 1783 speller and 1828 dictionary, and by Horace Mann's efforts and the start of universal public schooling in various states from the 1830s onwards. The dictionaries did not include proper nouns, so names were among the last words to get standardized spellings, as any exasperated genealogist sifting through old passenger manifests and Census data knows.

Probably a dozen forms were in use in the late 1700s. Both Pensylvania and Pennsylvania appear on the original U.S. Constitution, notable as not only was the document composed in Pennsylvania, but the secretary, one Jacob Shallus, was a scribe for the Pennsylvania state legislature and presumably one who ought to know.

Multiple spellings frequently appear in the same document, sometimes just a few words apart:

Griffiths, R. *An Historical Review of the Constitution and Government of Pensylvania*, 1759. p381

… or no words apart:

Almon, J. and Bladon, S. *The trade and navigation of Great-Britain considered*, 1767. p54

Indeed, Seymour Stanton Block's 2004 biography of the commonwealth's most famous son, entitled Benjamin Franklin, Genius of Kites, Flights and Voting Rights, reports that as an anti-counterfeiting measure,

[Franklin] purposely spelled Pennsylvania a different way on each denomination bill: Pennsylvania, Pensylvania, Pennsilvania, and Pensilvania

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    But no Pencilvania. :-( Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 12:02
  • Franklin was a famous Pennsylvanian, but he is not a “son of the commonwealth”, having been born in Boston. Commented Apr 7, 2014 at 21:51
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    @MarkDominus Oh, I think Philadelphians would define son broadly enough to disagree, much as Kentucky and Illinois fight over Lincoln, and Ohio and North Carolina the Wright Brothers. On the other hand, I do not think Tennessee and Arkansas squabble much over Gideon Pillow.
    – choster
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 16:05

The Spanish labeled the area L'arcadia, or "wooded coast", during the explorer Verrazano's voyage in in 1524. (This is significant.) After changing hands multiple times, the land was given to Willian Penn by King George II to settle a debt owed to Penn's father by the king. Though Penn suggested Sylvania (Latin: silva/silvestre means woods/forest. Sylvania means woodland.) I seem to remember it was King Charles II who named it Penn's Sylvania (later shortened to Pennsylvania).

Back when the bell was made (actually for many years before and some after), spellings did not matter as much as sounds. The word Pensylvania and other variants all appear on old maps and documents.

This spelling has been used to illustrate the doctrine of idem sonans in law, which provides that the misspelling of a name is acceptable on a deed so long as it sounds enough like the owner's name. Similarly, in the first line of the "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania adopted May 5, 1682," the colony is spelled "Pensilvania." However, it was not so officially named.

The bellmaker, however, copied the name in the quotation, stating "By Order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania for the State House in Philada." No one assumes, however, that Philadelphia was ever actually named Philada. All throughout history, when things were written (or carved, etc.) by hand, especially when they needed to fit into limited space, abbreviations and misspellings are multitudinous.

enter image description here

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    I believe the Philada is similar to the orthography common to abbreviations. Similar to Wm for William. The A is superscript, just as the M in Wm would be for William.
    – David M
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 0:33
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    I think you meant "the explorer Verrazano", no? Or was that a subtle joke, given the subject matter?
    – MT_Head
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 0:36
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    Perhaps it is also worth mentioning that W. Penn the elder appears frequently in Samuel Pepys' diary, where he is always referred to as Sir W. Pen. Commented Apr 8, 2014 at 2:17

Medica's statement about the provenance of the name Pennsylvania is absolutely correct.

Pensylvania, however, was an accepted alternative spelling at the time of the casting of the Liberty Bell.

From UShistory.org:

Also inscribed on the Bell is the quotation, "By Order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania for the State House in Philada." Note that the spelling of "Pennsylvania" was not at that time universally adopted. In fact, in the original Constitution, the name of the state is also spelled "Pensylvania." If you get a chance to visit the second floor of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, take a moment to look at the original maps on the wall. They, too, have the state name spelled "Pensylvania" (and the Atlantic Ocean called by the name of that day, "The Western Ocean"). The choice of the quotation was made by Quaker Isaac Norris, speaker of the Assembly.

enter image description here

Per Wikipedia:

At the time, "Pensylvania" was an accepted alternative spelling for "Pennsylvania." That spelling was used by Alexander Hamilton, a graduate of King's College (now Columbia University), in 1787 on the signature page of the United States Constitution.[105]

This is referenced to:

According to John C. Paige, who wrote a historical study of the bell for the National Park Service.

Per USConstitution.net on misspellings in the constitution:

Only one, though, is a glaringly obvious mistake. In the list of signatories, the word "Pennsylvania" is spelled with a single N: "Pensylvania." This usage conflicts with a prior spelling, at Article 1, Section 2. However, the single N was common usage in the 18th century — the Liberty Bell, for example, has the single N spelling inscribed upon it.

  • See below for an answer which shows that multiple spellings were in use at the same time even on the same document, none of them official. Wikipedia is not the most authoritative of sources. As you quote yourself above: Note that the spelling of "Pennsylvania" was not at that time universally adopted". Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 0:37
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    @medica I gave three separate sources including the map from the second floor of Independence Hall. What specifically do you object to in my answer that it was not universally adopted?
    – David M
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 0:57
  • I'm sorry, I think I didn't read your answer carefully enough. I thought you were saying that Pensylvania was the official name of Pennsylvania at one time. I wanted to make it clear that there was no official such spelling; there were other variants as well; the important thing is that they all sounded the same. Spelling was looser then; that's the point of idem sonans in law. Sorry for the misread. Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 9:22
  • @medica no problem.
    – David M
    Commented Apr 5, 2014 at 12:01

William Penn was the person they named Pennsylvania after, but considering he was Christian and was protested about the war, the bell was named The Liberty Bell of Pensylvania. During the time of the constitutional era, it was believed that the state it's self was spelled as "Pensylvania". But later on in the statehood era, It was renamed Pennsylvania. At this very moment I am inmy American History class. Facts...

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    Facts have references...
    – Helmar
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 15:01
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    Wm. Penn was much to humble a man to name Pennsylvania after himself. It was King Charles II who scoffed at his modesty and named it Penn's Sylvania. "William Penn initially requested his land grant be named “Sylvania,” from the Latin for “woods.” Charles II instead named it “Pennsylvania,” after Penn’s father, causing Penn to worry that settlers would believe he named it after himself." Also, if you are in class at the moment, maybe you should be paying attention to the 'facts'. Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 15:24

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