What’s In A Nickname? Places edition
What’s in a name? That which we call a city by any other name would smell as sweet. Some nicknames are obvious. Denver, CO is the Mile High City because it’s precisely one mile above sea level. Dallas, Texas is The Big D; everything’s bigger in Texas. But which American city can also be called The Emerald City, which state is the Land of Lincoln and what’s a buckeye or a Sooner?
Let’s start our tour of land labels and city sobriquets here in the States. One of the cuter-sounding nicknames is Boston, MA’s moniker of “Beantown.” The origins are a bit nebulous. It could come from baked beans which Puritan settlers would cook on Saturdays and keep warm in crocks by the hearth all day on Sunday when they were forbidden from working, including cooking, on the Sabbath.
It won’t shock you that Las Vegas is called Sin City, what with the 24 hours drinking and loose blue laws, the gambling and strip clubs, but no brothels. Not legal ones anyway. Prostitution isn’t legal inside Clark County, which contains the city of Las Vegas, and half a dozen other counties. A more-recent name with a similar feel is New Orlean’s nickname of The Big Easy. Although there was supposedly a dancehall that went by that name in the early 1900s, no one was really using the term until the ’70s. Two people are credited with popularizing the name: Betty Guillaud and James Conaway. Betty Guillaud was a newspaper columnist who started using the term as a sort of response to New York’s “Big Apple” moniker. Jimmy Conaway was a writer who published a crime novel called The Big Easy in 1970, which was made into a movie starring Dennis Quaid in 1986.
Philadelphia, PA is the City of Brotherly Love. This one’s a straight translation. The word “Philadelphia” roughly translates to “brotherly love” in Greek. “Philos” is love and “adelphos” is brother. William Penn named it that because he wanted his city to be a place where all religions were tolerated, in keeping with his Quaker beliefs.
The original name for Los Angeles was El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles, in English, Town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula. Or some variation thereof. There’s a fair amount of contention among historians as to whether it might also have included Senora le Reyna, de le Reina, or de la Porciuncula. Either way, that would not fit on a highway sign.
The origin of alias of the Windy City is surprisingly complicated. The most popular theory goes that while New York and Chicago were competing to host the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, an editor at The New York Sun wrote a hit piece that dismissed Chicago as “that windy city.” However there’s evidence that the term existed before Dana’s reference, and no one’s even sure if Dana’s editorial actually existed. Barry Popik, a consultant for the Oxford English Dictionary, insists that Cincinnati actually coined the term, and it wasn’t exactly a compliment. “Windy” referred to both the weather and windbag politicians. If the city ever wanted to rebrand, for this reporter’s money, they need look no further than Carl Sandburg’s eponymous 1914 poem for inspiration, “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” But the wind is good too, I guess.
Some cities take their names from thing they produce, or at least used to. If you know anything about Pittsburgh, PA, you know it’s an industrial city with a long history of steel production. This goes back to the late 1800s, when Andrew Carnegie brought his Carnegie Steel Company, later enveloped by the US Steel Corporation, to the city. The mills employed lots of locals, so it only made sense to make the alloy part of the place’s nickname. Also, it sounds a lot better than naming it for the other thing the area produces, coal. Detroit, MI’s name is French ‘strait,’ as in a narrow waterway, but most people think of it as Motor City. People like Henry Ford and Ransom Olds were based in Michigan when they started building the auto industry. Factories need workers, so people moved to Detroit for jobs and the city grew. Though life has not been so easy for the residents in the past few decades, at least they can lay claim to two nicknames for things they produce. In 1959, Berry Gordy hung a sign bearing “Hitsville, USA” in the front window of his recording studio, Motown records. Just as the Ford production line cranked out unprecedented numbers of cars, Motown records issued forth a staggering number of new artists and songs as part of ‘the Motown sound,’ altering the American pop culture landscape forever.
Baltimore, MD’s agnomen of “Charm City” is quite distantly removed from its former, unofficial heading of “Bodymore, Murderland.” got to be nicknamed Charm City. Simple: an ad campaign! In 1975, Mayor William Donald Schaefer called on some of the area’s top marketing minds to help Baltimore’s poor public image. One of them, Bill Evans, wrote the line, “Baltimore has more history and unspoiled charm tucked away in quiet corners than most American cities out in the spotlight.” The team zeroed in on Charm City, and produced a series of ads which even featured charm bracelets at the bottom. That’s how it all began, so quit giving H.L. Mencken the credit.
Probably the best well-known city nickname is the Big Apple, New York, NY. The term “big apple” existed long before it got attached to NYC to describe “something regarded as the most significant of its kind; an object of desire and ambition.” In 1909, author Edward Martin was referring to New York as the big apple, saying the rest of the country ‘feels the big apple gets a disproportionate share of the national sap.” By the 1920s, racetrack enthusiasts and jazz musicians had spread it into popular usage, before the New York Convention and Visitors Bureau president Charles Gillett turned it into a tourism campaign. NYC has another nickname, known best to fans of DC’s Dark Knight, Batman, that of Gotham City. New York was Gotham before the first comic books ever saw print. English village that originally bore the name and a reputation that could favorable be called mixed.
One account hold that King John, the villainous usurper from the legend of Robin Hood, planned to travel through Gotham on his way to nearby Nottingham. Any road the king traveled on would become a public highway, and the villagers didn’t want that, in part because they would be taxed to pay for it. So they hatched a plan to feign madness. It was believed at the time that madness was contagious. If they really sold it, maybe the king would stay away.
And sell it they did. Some men built a fence around a bush to prevent a cuckoo bird from escaping; when the bird flew away, they made the fence higher. Others were seen trying drown an eel in a pond. Their ruse worked, leading to the saying: “There are more fools pass through Gotham than remain in it.” Villagers were also dubbed the Wise Men of Gotham. The king stayed far away.
Tales of their remarkable foolishness spread, and they were collected in various books including The Merie Tales of the Mad Men of Gotam, published in 1565. American author Washington Irving, best known for The Tales of Sleepy Hollow, became aware of the tales and was the first person to link Gotham in England to New York in the US. He repeatedly mocked Manhattan by referring to it as Gotham in satirical writings in 1807. The nickname stuck, with many local businesses adopting the name.
It wouldn’t be the last time Irving made an impact of American history. His writings gave us the phrase “the almightly dollar” and his character of Diedrich Knickerbocker is where the New York Knicks basketball team derive their name from. He also twisted our history. He’s responsibly for school children being taught that the Spanish believed the earth was flat until Columbus proved otherwise, when in fact people had accepted the earth spherical reality for centuries and Columbus was trying to prove that it was smaller than everyone else said it was…and shaped like a pear. It’s analogous to Longfellow’s poem that left us thinking if Paul Revere was a lone hero in alerting colonial troops of British forces even though numerous other riders were involved; or Robert Louis Stevenson giving us everything we think we know about pirates in his book Treasure Island.
But circling back to Gotham and New York. It was the popularity of the name Gotham with business owners that led to it being used as the Big Apple copycat of the caped crusader. Detective Comics writer Bill Finger literally flipped through the phone book to find inspiration for a name and spotted the listing for Gotham Jewelers.
So which city did we tease at the top as Emerald City? It’s actually Seattle, WA. The name was chosen in a 1982 contest held by the Seattle-King County Convention and Visitors Bureau to come up with the best nickname for the city, and Emerald City won out. It’s easy to see why when you read how the winning described Seattle as, “the jewel of the Northwest, the queen of the Evergreen State, the many-faceted city of space, elegance, magic and beauty.”
Less a fact than a piece of unsolicited advice, no one in Atlanta refers to the city as Hotlanta. That’s something tourists and people who’ve never been do. The same rule applies to shortening San Francisco to Frisco and New Orlean to Nawlins. Share or retweet this week’s episode post if you strongly agree or strongly disagree with that statement.
We get to travel abroad for this week’s featured review, our first review on iTunes UK. Mr. Enriquez wrote, More fun than Trivial Pursuit and you don’t have to wait for your turn. Moxie, the host, gives you facts on anything and everything, with a pleasant voice and comedic delivery. Whatever subject you can think of, Moxie has done it, and if she hasn’t, she will and she will do it well. Definitely give this podcast a listen.
Not content to give our cities multiple names, we’ve also given official epithets to our states. The easiest and most obvious way to come up with one is to base it on the state’s natural features. Not about to be known exclusively for its size, Rhode Island is “The Ocean State.” Rhode Island boasts nearly 400 miles of ocean shoreline, with its coves, bays, and islands included. No mean feat when the entirety of the state only measures 37 miles wide and 48 miles long. “The Green Mountain State” of Vermont was originally settled by the British and the French in the 18th century and the nickname actually comes from a French phrase, “montagne verte” which means “green mountain.” The first clergyman to visit the area named the Green Mountains in 1761. It’s also lends its name to a very nice burlesque troupe that joined forces with my Game of Thrones burlesque tour. If you’re up Lake Champlain way, take in one of their shows.
The origin of Massachusetts being called “The Bay State” could be one of two things: the fact that early pioneers settled on Cape Cod Bay or the Massachusetts Bay Company, who governed New England until 1684. The sandy beaches and subtropical climate of Florida makes it a lock for The Sunshine State and not, as Homer Simpson calls it, America’s wang. Landlocked Arkansas is The Natural State, owing to its abundance of beautiful natural geographical structures like rivers, caves, hills, and valleys, as well as a healthy variety of native plants and animals that call this state home. There would be no overlooking the Grand Canyon and so no other more fitting name for Arizona than The Grand Canyon State. The Grand Canyon is one of the most famous natural features in the world. The term “grand canyon” was coined in the 1870s by John Wesley Powell during his exploration of the Colorado River. Bonus fact: Two different postage stamps featuring the Grand Canyon have been issued then summarily recalls due to glaring factual errors. In January 2000, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Grand Canyon stamp. However, the photo used was a mirrored image, meaning it was backwards. This was only a year after the Postal Service mistakenly labeled the Grand Canyon as a Colorado landmark on 100 million stamps.
Alaska was the 49th state to join the union, but that’s only part of its nickname “The Last Frontier.” Only 1/3 of the land in the entire state has been defined by cities and towns, leaving a vast expanse of undisturbed, remote landscape. Similarly rugged is “The Mountain State” of West Virginia. It has the highest average altitude of the states east of the Mississippi.
Some monikers honor specific people. Illinois is “The Land of Lincoln.” Abraham Lincoln began his political career in Illinois and was living in the state when he was elected for the presidency in 1861. The slogan was adopted in 1955, even though Lincoln was actually born in Kentucky. Iowa’s nickname of the Hawkeye State honors native american leader, Chief Black Hawk, who was relocated to Iowa after settlers took over his people’s land. One of Iowa’s newspaper publishers was friends with Black Hawk and renamed his paper The Hawk-Eye and Iowa Patriot to honor him. “The Hawkeye State” was suggested by a judge and was made official in 1838. Quick age check: when you hear the name Hawkeye, do you instantly think Avengers, MASH or Last of the Mohicans? Look for a poll on our social media after the episode comes out.
One nickname that perplexed me for years was Oklahoma’s name “The Sooner State.” Sooner than what? Thanks to the great podcast Anytown, USA, we have the answer. If you saw the middling Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman movie Far & Away, you saw the Oklahoma land race, where settlers were given plots of land if they could reach them first. Jump the gun and risk being shot. Many people were sneaky enough to get out into the plots before the race to illegally stake their claim. These folks were called “sooners” and the name stuck. In 1908, the University of Oklahoma even adopted the name for its football team.
Another state with competing origin stories is North Carolina, aka the “Tar Heel State.” One school of thought holds that it’s to do with North Carolina being one of the largest producers of tar, pitch, rosin and turpentine, in the world through the eighteenth and nineteenth century. The other leading contender can be found in Webster Clark’s “Histories of the Several Regiments from North Carolina in the Great War, 1861-1865,” published in 1901 (before the better known “great war”), James M. Ray of Asheville speaks of an 1863 incident: “In a fierce battle in Virginia, where their supportive column was driven from the field, North Carolina troops stood alone and fought successfully. The victorious troops were asked in a condescending tone by some Virginians who had retreated, “Any more tar down in the Old North State, boys?” The response came quickly: “No: not a bit; old Jeff’s bought it all up.” “Is that so? What is he going to do with it?” the Virginians asked. “He is going to put it on your heels to make you stick better in the next fight.” “
South Dakota was renamed for a feature that would have been impressive enough on its own, but, then some folks thought it would be a keen idea to carve some faces into it and make South Dakota “The Mount Rushmore State”. Mount Rushmore features the faces of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, and took the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum, and his crews nearly 15 years to complete.
Brace yourself for a barrage of bonus facts: The monument was intended not to be busts, but to depict the entire bodies of the four presidents. They ran out of money, and Borglum died, after about the collarbones. Tourism officials in South Dakota wanted the mountainside to depict wild west icons, but the sculptor they hired took it a whole different direction, thanks in part to his pronounced fan-girling over personal friend Teddy Roosevelt. Borglum also wanted to create space behind the heads to house the Constitution and Declaration of Independence.
Even if you didn’t know that this land had been taken from the native people when the government reneged on a treaty, it’s almost always a safe bet to assume. It was stolen from the Sioux nation when gold was discovered in 1874, as reported to his superiors by everyone’s favorite, Gen. George Armstrong Custer. 106 years later, the Supreme Court declared the taking of the land to be unconstitutional and ordered compensation be paid in what amounts of over one billion dollars when adjusted for inflation. The Sioux nation refuses the claim the money. They don’t want the money; they want their land back.
Another safe bet for a state brand is native flora. Georgia is of course “The Peach State” and Ohio is “The Buckeye State.” What’s a buckeye? It’s a nut related to horse chestnuts, and the tree that bears it, as well as a tasty confection of peanut butter partially covered in chocolate. During the late summer months, fields all over Kansas are covered in wild sunflowers stretching their faces to the sun, earning it the name “The Sunflower State.” The sunflower was once considered a weed by some, while others admired its ability to grow in harsh conditions. The distinction between flower and weed is so arbitrary, anyway. Maine takes its moniker of “The Pine Tree State” from the early days of its statehood, when the tall trunks of White Pine trees, some of the tallest in North America, were used to make the masts of ships.
When you think of flowers to associate with southern states, few are more iconic than the magnolia, which, combined with their natural ubiquity, is why Mississippi chose to call itself “The Magnolia State.” Magnolias are both the the official state tree and the official state flower. A tree less in need of celebration, at least according to my cousin from Florida, is the palmetto, but that didn’t stop South Carolina from being re-christened “The Palmetto State.” The palmetto had more of a role in the state’s history than merely existing. While the Revolutionary War was still raging in June of 1776, colonial soldiers defended Charleston against the British with a fort made of palmetto tree trunks and emerged victorious.
Is the grass in Kentucky really blue? Well, it would be silly for them to call themselves “The Bluegrass State” if it wasn’t. The native grass in the region flowered with small blue buds, which gave the fields a bluish tint. Today, the nickname is associated with both the actual grass and bluegrass music. Continuing the color theme, Washington is “The Evergreen State,” so named for the abundance of evergreen forests across the state and that contain about 25 native tree species.
You can’t go wrong with native fauna either. An abundance of brown pelicans give Louisiana the name “The Pelican State.” Alabama is called the “Yellowhammer State,” from soldiers adding bits of yellow cloth to their uniform that looked like the Yellowhammer bird to denote where they came from. Beavers, with their ability to change waterways and their valuable fur, were an integral part of Oregon’s formative history, making it “The Beaver State.” An animal with a less industrious and more cantankerous reputation lent its name to Wisconsin; it is “The Badger State.” This nickname has an intermediary step, though. In the 1800s, miners lived in hillside caves called badger dens, so the miners came to be called badgers. Equally high on the list of short animals not to mess with is the one Michigan adopted the name of, the wolverine. Many say the state got its nickname from the large amount of wolverines that once populated the area, but other believe its a result of the usually-forgotten Toledo War. During the dispute over a small piece of land, Ohioans were rumored to have said Michiganders were “as vicious and bloodthirsty as wolverines.” Bonus fact: Before his first turn as the comic book character Wolverine, Hugh Jackman wasted three weeks studying the behavior of wolves to incorporate into his performance, not knowing that a wolverine is a wholly unrelated species.
Got valuable things in the ground? That’s another good source for a state nickname. Idaho takes its name not from its famous potatoes, but from the wealth of precious minerals and gems including jade, topaz, zircon, and star garnets, the state mineral, making it “The Gem State.” The word “Idaho” means “gem of the mountains” in the language of the Shoshone. California is “The Golden State” owing to all the fuss and bother over shiny yellow rocks back in 1848. Nevada is “The Silver State” for the same reason. The large number of granite formations and quarries merit New Hampshire’s nickname “The Granite State.” Montana is “The Treasure State,” in reference to the state’s high production of gold, silver and copper. For a time it was called “The Stubbed-Toe State,” from all the amateur hikers bumbling around. I’ll confess, I though the official nickname was “big sky country.”
Who doesn’t love a good origin story? Delaware was the first of the original 13 states to ratify the constitution, an so calls itself “The First State.” Connecticut is “The Constitution State,” since some historians believe the Fundamental Orders of 1638-39, which were written in Connecticut, were the first written rules of government to be used in the U.S. Becoming a state in 1876, 100 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Colorado is “The Centennial State.” Virginia is “The Old Dominion State,” because King Charles II declared this nickname because of the state’s devotion to the crown during the English Civil War. I thought it was because it was so old. I really need to start reading the pamphlets at the rest areas. Virginia is also known unofficially as the “Mother of Presidents” because it is the birthplace of Washington, Madison, Wilson, Tyler, Jefferson, Monroe, Taylor, and Harrison.
If you’ve ever been in the vast expanses of Texas at night, you know it was a lot of stars. The lone star that gives it its name comes from the Texas state flag, which had one fewer stars than the flag of Mexico that they were separating from. Pennsylvania is “The Keystone State.” A keystone is the center stone in an arch; take that out and the whole things falls. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address were all written in Pennsylvania, and it was about in the center of the 13 colonies.
From here on out, let’s call the reasons for state nicknames “assorted.” Wyoming is “The Equality State,” since it gave women the right to vote before it was even a state, in hopes of correcting the 6:1 male-female population. They even refused to rescind the right to vote when being made a state. Missouri is “The Show-Me State,” after a 1899 speech by a congressman, who said, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me,” and it just sort of stuck. Tennessee is “The Volunteer State,” referring to the Mexican War, when the governor asked for 2,600 volunteers to assist in the war and an overwhelming 30,000 men turned up. Minnesota is not called “The North Star State” because of some propensity for the navigation-aiding north star, because because it was declared by its first governor to be “the Star of the North.” Many people call it “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” though it actually has more than 11,000 lakes.
Maryland is called “The Old Line State” and it’s nothing to do with the North-South divide surveyed by messrs Mason and Dixon. Historians say that the nickname came from George Washington himself, in reference to bravery of the Maryland Line troops. In 1959, we officially said ‘aloha’, which means hello, to “The Aloha State” of Hawaii. This also meant aloha, or goodbye, to their native leadership.
Utah is “The Beehive State,” either from Mormon settlers bringing beehives with them or from the beehives as a symbol of the tenacity, competence, and strength of the settlers themselves — the jury is still out. North Dakota is “The Peace Garden State,”in tribute to the International Peace Garden that straddles the Canadian border, which features, among other things, a large floral clock that stretches 18 feet in diameter. Though it’s the butt of many jokes based on the smells of its industrial regions, New Jersey is officially “The Garden State.” The first Attorney General, Abraham Browning, referred to New Jersey “is an immense barrel, filled with good things to eat and open at both ends.” Name a skyscrape. If you said Empire State building, it won’t surprise you that New York is “The Empire State.” It comes from a letter George Washington wrote to the New York Common Council in 1785, referring to New York as the “seat of the empire” because of its plentiful resources and wealth.
If you’ve ever been to New Mexico, you won’t argue with its title of “Land of Enchantment.” Some of the state’s natural features include the white gypsum sand dunes at White Sands National Monument, the Rio Grande Gorge, Capulin Volcano, and numerous towering red rock buttes. September is a great time to be in New Mexico. The weather is perfect and it’s chili-roasting season, though the dry air is a bit of an adjustment if you’ve grown up on 90% humidity, like I have.
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. We’ll leave you with one last state whose name is well-known, but thoroughly hard to bet. Indiana is “The Hoosier State,” it’s residents are happily called Hoosiers, but what is a hoosier. No one knows for sure. There are more more theories than you can shake a stalk of corn at: it’s a mispronunciation of “huzzah,” it’s a reference to the men , that it’s a corruption of the question “who’s here?,” or workmen hired by Samuel Hoosier on the Ohio Falls canal, take your pick. Maybe they should have stuck with the other motto, “Crossroads of America.” Thanks for spending part of your day with me.