Today in my undergrad course, as preparation for their Lexiculture papers as well as introducing them to a module on North American English dialects, I decided to take them through the process of researching a phrase known to all of them, but almost certainly not to most of you: “Michigan left”. This is the phenomenon, nearly unique to Michigan, where left turns are prohibited at an intersections where there is a median, but instead, you turn right, shift left across one or more lanes, and then several hundred feet later, you do a U-turn in a special U-turn lane for the purpose. It’s also known as a median u-turn crossover, although no one ever calls it that.
Every single student in my class had heard this term. I learned what it was very shortly after arriving here, because these turns are ubiquitous in metro Detroit. And yet there is no entry for Michigan left in the Oxford English Dictionary, and also none in the Dictionary of American Regional English. This, as I told my students, is interesting.
I asked them to speculate when it might have originated, and they immediately developed two very reasonable hypotheses: a) that it originated with the early days of the automobile, which is iconically associated with Michigan, of course; b) that it was associated with the period of massive expansion of roadways in the 1960s, particularly as Detroit’s white population left for the suburbs. Before looking into it today, I would have bet on the second hypothesis, and indeed, very shortly, we discovered a very useful page, Michigan Highways, confirming that this road setup was first initiated in 1960.
The only problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for the phrase Michigan left, or any variation of it, before 1993, at which time it turns up in a handful of technical reports written by transportation nerds, e.g.:
“The scene showed traveling on Ecorse Road 1/2 mile to Hannan Road and turning north for 2 mi where it turned onto Michigan Ave (US-12), which required a Michigan left turn. (A Michigan left turn is a right turn followed by a U-turn, to make a left.)” (Green, P., et al. 1993. Examination of a videotape-based method to evaluate the usability of route guidance and traffic information systems. University of Michigan, Transportation Research Institute, p. 7)
As I noted to the students, the fact that a Michigan-based technical report written for road experts felt it necessary to define the term suggests that we are not far off the actual date of origin. But the fact that they used the term ‘Michigan left’ at all, as opposed to a technical term like ‘median u-turn crossover’, suggests that it must have had some currency at that time. So my guess would be 1985-1990 as a reasonable point of origin.
It was very surprising for them (and me!) to think that the phrase originated within most of their lifetimes, because it’s just so ubiquitous in Michigan English today. But there’s a lot of evidence for this late date of origin: instances of the phrase pick up rapidly in the 1990s, but almost entirely in Michigan-based publications and newspapers, and almost all defining the term immediately after using it. There were a few attested instances in North Carolina, where apparently someone decided to emulate the Michigan traffic system, and almost none anywhere else. This confirms that, unlike toponymic phrases coined by outsiders to mark the unusual nature of other people, Michigan left was coined by insiders in recognition of a unique characteristic of the state.
It’s commonly the case that people think that words and expressions are much more recent than they are – this is the recency illusion, a term coined by the linguist Arnold Zwicky. But with Michigan left, we have the opposite: we have a recent phrase which is believed by its users to be older than it actually is; Zwicky calls this the Antiquity Illusion. In this case, I suspect the illusion is so strong because the phenomenon being described – being forced to turn right and then do a U-turn – is older than the word itself. People of virtually any age can remember doing the deed, and so they naturally associate it with the now-existing word. I and the students did searches for a variety of other phrases (Michigan U-turn, Michigan turnaround) without any luck, suggesting that in fact, prior to the 1980s or even the early 1990s, there simply was no common phrase for the Michigan left.
All of which raises a final, and possibly unanswerable question: how and why, after a quarter century of existence, did this concept finally acquire a name?