Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. The word “Commonwealth” is used in the official name of the island, just as it is in the names of four states – Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia and Pennsylvania. “The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” doesn’t describe a special legal status any more than “the Commonwealth of Kentucky” does. Still, the term confuses people who are not familiar with the way it is used.
For many American readers, the use of “commonwealth” suggests a special political identity, as in the former British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth of Nations. This is a group of 53 independent nations which have chosen to be members of this multinational organization. “Commonwealth” has no such meaning in the names of the U.S. states and territories which use the term.
We’ve noticed a growing tendency to use the legally accurate term “territory” rather than “the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.” But noticing a trend is not enough. We checked into Big Data to make sure. Click the screenshots below to see larger versions.
Google found 159,000 mentions of the territory of Puerto Rico in news reports:
Searching for “Puerto Rico, a territory,” which captures a slightly different set of articles, produces 187,000 results.
Only 8,790 mentions of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico turned up.
How long has this been going on? We cannot see Google search results from the past, but we can check Google Trends to see how people’s searches for the two terms have changed over time:
Clearly, the use of the term “Commonwealth of Puerto Rico” hit its peak in 2005. The phrase “territory of Puerto Rico” shows a flat line until 2010. Now the two phrases are almost neck and neck among searchers, who are likely to be influenced by the term most commonly used in news stories.
We cannot look back further for online use, but we can use the nGram viewer to check books as far back as the 16th century. For the image below, as for all the images on this page, you can click to enlarge. We can see that the “commonwealth of Puerto Rico” was occasionally mentioned in the 1930s and reached peaks around 1960 and in the late 1970s before dipping as the years roll on toward 2010.
The increase in usage of the term “Commonwealth” corresponds with the 1952 enactment of Puerto Rico’s local constitution, officially called the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Although “Commonwealth” is in the official title of this document, the local constitution did not change Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory. The law’s legislative history is clear on this point.
“Territory of Puerto Rico,” on the other hand, was written about a great deal in the 1940s and peaked in the early 1970s before starting an upwards climb that put it ahead of “Commonwealth” by 2010.
Social Mention, a real-time sampling tool for social media, currently shows a mention of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico every 44 seconds, and a mention of the territory of Puerto Rico every 33 seconds — the same count as for mentions of “Puerto Rico” without either descriptive term.