Wayne State University
Cite as: Baker, Jaime. 2016. Michigander. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 5. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/michigander.pdf
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The word Michigander was coined among American elites in the mid-nineteenth century as a patrial, or name describing a resident of some place, in this case the state of Michigan. At first glance the word clearly makes no sense. It is seemingly a portmanteau of the prefix Michi– referring to the State of Michigan, and gander, a male goose. Yes, there are giant Canadian geese populations abundantly found in Michigan, but that does not connote anything about the people that live or settled here. We are certainly not known as the “Northern Geese People” (although there have been some violent geese-human interactions), but geese had nothing to do with the formation of this state. Or did they? What happened to all of the other variants of Michigander that group together the people of Michigan? Was Michigander used right from the start of statehood or was it coined later? Why is the most popular term for the people of Michigan such a ridiculously formed noun? My research has led me to ask all of these questions and the answers may be surprising.
Where did it come from?
According to the Google Ngram Viewer (Figure 1), the word Michigander emerged in 1850. That year, I found, is somewhat accurate but not entirely precise. The Online Etymology Dictionary places its origins in simply 1848 with no citation. However, the Oxford English Dictionary Online states its first citable roots lie in the Hampshire Gazette in 1838, with a quotation by Senator Abraham Lincoln a decade later.
(“Michigander, n.” OED Online 2014)
So which is the precise answer? Upon further investigation, I was unable to retrieve the original articles from the Hampshire Gazette or the Bellows Falls Gazette. There are, however, two pieces of evidence I was able to retrieve that may slightly antedate Lincoln’s speech. The first is from an 1848 United States Presidential campaign debate between General Lewis Cass of Michigan and John Parker Hale of New Hampshire but there is no precise date associated with it: “’Tell Hale,’ said Cass ‘that he is a Granite goose.’ ‘Tell Cass,’ said Hale, ‘that he is a Michi-gander[!]’” (Bungay 1854, 93). The second is a quotation from Hans Sperber of Ohio State University, citing an Ohio newspaper article, which came out on the same day as Lincoln’s speech in Congress. This signifies that Michigander must have been used before Lincoln’s speech since there were no telegraphic lines available for the Xenia writer to have any knowledge of it (Sperber 1954, 25)
The next question is with whom and where did it originate? As shown, Michigander was coined as a political slur for General Lewis Cass during the Presidential campaign for the election of 1848. As the timeline would have it, there is a high likelihood that it was later in 1848 when Lincoln notably used Michigander as a political attack against Cass’ campaign and his decisions as a General in the war of 1812. This was not the first time that a politician was personally attacked based on physical appearance and it was also not the first time General Cass had been mockingly related to an animal. His opponents also stated that he was like a donkey, apparent in this political cartoon referring him to as “Cass-ass.”(Dexter 1848, 184):
The name Michigander was not originally a partial given to the people of the state but rather a nickname directly for Cass himself and it remained just that for several years (Sperber 1954, 25). Cass reportedly hated the term and had good reason to. A quote from Mrs. Varina Davis attests to this; “Mr. Cass was testy sometimes, but it was the testiness of an over-worked man, not an ill-natured one. Nothing annoyed him so much as being called a Michigander; he said the name was suggestive.” (Shriner 1918, 104). Political cartoons, commercials and nicknaming still widely continue on in national politics today. Though, I have not come across a nickname since that has gained so much popular attention.
What Drove the Semantic Shift and How Long Did it Take to Assume its Current Fame?
Michigander has since taken a dramatic semantic shift from a derogatory slur to its place atop the list of acceptable patrials for the people of the State of Michigan, though it did not spike in popularity until 1860, the year that Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States, Cass left Washington, and the year before the Civil War began. Cass also stated in 1860 in opposition to any state’s secession from the union and in defense of his personal integrity; “I speak to Cobb, … and he tells me he is a Georgian; to Floyd, and he tells me he is a Virginian… I am not a Michigander, I am a citizen of the United States.” (Klunder 1996, 304).
Prior to Michigander, many terms were, and still are, acceptable when referring to the people of Michigan including Michiganian, Michiganite, and Michiganese. Slightly before Michigander emerged, Michiganian was the predominant term for the people of Michigan and still firmly holds second place among recent English literature (Figure 1). An article published in 1847 from the Detroit Free Press, originally taken from the Milwaukee Courier, praising the educational system of Michigan while the rest of the infrastructure was somewhat lagging behind, reads, “After reading it, what Michiganian will not feel proud of his home?” (Figure 2). Conversely, Michiganese never caught on as much as its supporter, David Dudley Field in 1888, desired it to when he presented before the congressional Committee on Territories (Marckwardt 1952, 204)
Michigander has no obvious place in the English language, referring to people or otherwise. It is a portmanteau, or combination of two existing words to form a new word with both meanings (for example: bodacious, edutainment, or frenemy). Therefore, the word Michigander literally breaks down to “the gander from Michigan” (Sperber 1954, 27). The logical thing to do when referring to a population or a person’s native land is to tack on an ending such as: –ian, -an, -ite, or -er. Ex: Pennsylvanian, Alaskan, New Hampshirite, and Detroiter. Following that, the noun Michiganian makes the most sense when referring to the people of the Michigan. Since the word already ends in –an, it was necessary to add –ian to make an easy transition from one word to the next (Marckwardt 204). Michiganian was first used in The Weekly Register by Hezekiah Niles in 1813, according to Albert Marckwardt and the OED Online. However, since the Michigan Territory was created by an act of Congress on January 11, 1805, the term may have been used before 1813 but was not as widely well known (Marckwardt 204). The State was admitted to the Union on January 26, 1837 and the patrials Michigander and Michiganian have been used interchangeably throughout our history. Though previously, Michigander was the “odd goose out” so to speak.
Today Michigander, and its various forms, is the most widely used term to index and refer to people from Michigan, but some still prefer to use Michiganian and some prefer Michiganite. A poll taken by the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine in the July-August 1983 issue of relays that between Michigander, Michiganian, and Michiganite; Eighty-two percent of responders voted for Michigander, only fourteen percent voted for Michiganian, and just four percent voted for Michiganite. Many of the published comments in the poll were issues with the use of Michigander, mainly focusing around the term not being gender neutral. Though, some commenters defended its use as strong and inclusive. One even stated that it does have the ability to change by gender, “I’m a Michigander, my wife is a Michigoose, and our children are Michigoslins” (Michigan Natural Resources 1983). This comment in the article was the first time I had ever heard of the terms Michigoose or Michigoslins but further research reveals that the terms have also been in use almost as long as Michigander has been the preferred patrial.
The U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPOSM) is the official handbook for printed text released from the U.S. Houses of Administration. In the current GPOSM, updated in 2008, the official term for residents of the state of Michigan is Michiganians and that is what must be used in all official printings (Office 2008, 108). Though it appears that this may not have always been the case. In the Journal Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review there is an article entitled Wolverine and Michigander By Dr. Albert H. Marckwardt. He writes, “Officially, of course, we are all “Michiganites,” for that is the term approved by the U.S. [GPOSM], in its revision of January, 1945. This particular edition undertakes to give an approved designation for citizens of each of the forty-eight states, and it appears to be the first to make such an attempt. At least none of the earlier editions I have examined have a comparable department.” (Marckwardt 1952, 206). Thus, in national capacities, the people of Michigan were Michiganites and are now Michiganians, not Michiganders.
Chapter seventeen of the book Language Myths by Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudghill is entitled They Speak really Bad English Down South and in New York City. The author of the chapter, Dennis R. Preston, describes a survey of language correctives that he took of people from Texas, New York City, Alabama, and Michigan. He refers directly to the Michigan responders as Michiganders six times in the chapter with no indication at all of any other patrials for the people of Michigan (Preston 1998, 142-47). This shows the common thought shared by many that Michigander is a neutral term perfectly acceptable for use when one needs to make reference to the people of the State of Michigan.
I also conducted my own poll using a non-random sample of friends and family (in-state natives and out-of-state non-natives alike) to evaluate what their primary word choice is for the patrial of Michigan natives and residents. Of a sample of twelve responses collected, here are my results. Eight respondents instinctively chose and relate with Michigander, three chose Michiganian, and only one chose the term Michiganite. The term Michiganese was not mentioned by anyone. When informed of this term, eleven of them accepted it as another possibility for a patrial and one of them said that Michiganese only makes sense as the dialect of English that the people from Michigan speak, using the example Portuguese. It is also of good note that one of the respondents to my poll was a part of Governor Rick Snyder’s 2014 campaign and he preferred the use of Michigander to any other cognate. (Interviewee 2014).
The term Michigander has emerged and changed drastically over the past one hundred sixty-four years or so. It began as a direct personal attack against one of the great founders of the State of Michigan and has drastically grown in popularity to far surpass any of its related patrials over its lifetime. Michigander is reportedly the preferred patrial noun by people of the State of Michigan according to the Google Books, a poll by the Michigan Natural Resources Magazine, and possibly Governor Rick Snyder. It is also safe to state that most residents of the State have no idea that the term has such a rich history dating back nearly to the time of Michigan’s admittance as a state, and did not come about naturally but instead was thrust into the American culture through the American democratic process. While it began as a very derogatory slur for one of the founding fathers of the State of Michigan and indexed him as a goose, it has since become the most widely accepted and unique patrial word among the fifty states. May the Great Michigander for whom it was created live on in our memory and respect for our Great State.
(Figure 1: Google Books 2014)
(Figure 2: (Democratic Free Press 1847, 2)
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Interviewee, interview by Jaime Baker. (October 2014).
Klunder, Willard Carl. Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.
Marckwardt, Albert H. “Wolverine and Michigander.” Edited by Frank E. Robbins. Michigan Alumnus Quarterly Review (The Alumni Association of the University of Michigan) 58, no. 18 (May 1952): 203-208.
Michigan Natural Resources Magazine . “”Michigander” Wins Landslide Vote of MNR Readers.” State of Michigan, July-August 1983: 9.
OED Online. “Michigander, n.”. Oxfoed University Press. September 2014. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/117869?redirectedFrom=michi-gander#eid (accessed November 10, 2014).
—. “Michiganian, n.”. Oxford University Press. September 2014. http://www.oed.com.proxy.lib.wayne.edu/view/Entry/117870#eid37159864 (accessed November 10, 2014).
Office, U.S. Government Printing. “U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.” U.S. Government Printing Office. September 16, 2008. http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/search/pagedetails.action?granuleId=&packageId=GPO-STYLEMANUAL-2008&fromBrowse=true (accessed November 10, 2014).
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Sperber, Hans. “Words and Phrases in American Politics: Michigander.” American Speech (Duke University Press) 29, no. 1 (February 1954): 21-27.