Protho-Notorious

When I lived in Pittsburgh in the early '80s, I developed an appreciation for pierogies and became reasonably fluent in the charming local lingo ...
December 26, 2007
 

When I lived in Pittsburgh in the early '80s, I developed an appreciation for pierogies and became reasonably fluent in the charming local lingo known as Pittsburgh-ese. (In which the place where all the big buildings are is "dahntahn," "owls" separate the display cases in the department stores, etc.)

I departed, though, without figuring out Pennsylvania's curious local-government setup, especially at the county level, where among the centuries-old structure of "row offices" roosts an official known as the prothonotary.

One thing I did learn was that almost nobody else could say exactly what a prothonotary was, though some knew that it was something like what other places call a clerk of court. (Delaware has prothonotaries too.) I thought it sounded like a rare bird species or possibly an orthodontic procedure.

Even Harry Truman, a veteran of Missouri's equally byzantine local-government structure, was puzzled. "What the hell is a prothonotary?" he asked during a 1948 campaign stop in Pittsburgh, according to local legend. (I'm lifting all this prothonotary lore from Wikipedia, which has an article on them -- they literally are Byzantine in origin -- not to mention a fine entry on pierogies.)

Well, soon maybe nobody will need to ask what a prothonotary is. Allegheny County, long a poster child for local governments in desperate need of consolidation and merger, is folding the job into a county Department of Court Records, which also will subsume two other offices as part of a county-government Great Simplification the voters authorized a couple of years ago.

Now that I sort of know what a prothonotary is, I'm feeling a twinge of sadness at seeing them begin to fade away after centuries of doing whatever it is they do. But, then, I also miss drive-in movies, the Cisco Kid and our '54 Nash Rambler.

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