The best and worst of state symbols

Today I had occasion to look up Idaho’s state motto. I think it’s Latin for ‘Nothing changes.’ This got me interested in rummaging through all the state symbols, in order to decide which (in my subjective opinion) were best or worst.

I listened to about forty-seven state songs to bring you this, I’ll have you know. If zombies invade my house to consume my brains, they will find that they are lunching on oatmeal.

With that:

State horses (where it’s specifically the state horse):

  • Best: Idaho, the Appaloosa. Symbol of the free life.
  • Worst: Florida, the Florida cracker horse. Cracker horse? Seriously?

State land animals (includes land mammals only, no dogs or cats or reptiles):

  • Best: Wisconsin, the American badger (Taxidea taxus). Spit, snarl, slash.
  • Worst: North Carolina and Kentucky, the gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis). That’s it? A squirrel? And in Kentuck, it’s the state game animal? I thought that was an overblown stereotype.

State marine mammals (and anything else that mainly swims):

  • Best: Connecticut, the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus). Too bad they killed most of ’em.
  • Worst: Florida, the dolphin or porpoise. You can’t even decide which kind you like? Delphinus indecisivus?

State cat (domestic type):

  • Best: Maine, the Maine coon cat (Felis ayuhicus). If it can really whip a raccoon, I’m down.
  • Worst: Massachusetts, the tabby (Felis garfieldius). Give it some lasagna on the way out.

State dog (domestic type):

  • Best: Alaska, the Alaskan malamute (Canis bowdownicus). It’s my alma mater’s mascot, automatic choice.
  • Worst: New Hampshire, the New Hampshire chinook (Canis knockofficus). If you wanted a sled dog, Alaska was there first.

State bird:

  • Best: New Mexico, the roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus). Unique, and pure class.
  • Worst: Iowa, New Jersey, Washington, the American goldfinch (Avis aureohumdrumius). In the first place, hardly anyone recognizes it. In the second, even fewer care.

State fish:

  • Best: Alabama, the fighting tarpon (Tarpon atlanticus). It’s bigger than some adult women.
  • Worst: Delaware, the weakfish (Cynoscion genus). They said it themselves.

State reptile/amphibian:

  • Best: Florida, Louisiana, the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). I like turtles but that’s just hard to beat. If Arizona anointed the sidewinder, it would automatically win.
  • Worst: none. They are all cool.

State shell (no, I’m serious):

  • Best: Alabama, Johnstone’s Junonia (Scaphella junonia johnstoneae). That thing is just gorgeous.
  • Worst: Mississippi, Virginia: oyster shell (from Crassostrea virginica). Ho hum. If they included the actual creature, that’d help.

State fossil:

  • Best: Minnesota, giant beaver (Castoroides ohioensis). Stood eight feet tall. Just imagine. In fairness, there are a lot of great candidates, like New York’s sea scorpion.
  • Worst: Virginia, Pliocene scallop (Chesapecten jeffersonius). A scallop? Faaaaa. Ever feel inspired by a scallop, unless it was with alfredo and Cajun spices?

State grass (look it up if you don’t believe me):

  • Best: Kansas, Nebraska, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). I yield to that which nourishes the nation’s finest beef. Respect to Illinois for big bluestem.
  • Worst: I can’t summon any because of the states that have an official grass, none of them picked anything stupid.

State flower:

  • Best: Kansas, sunflower (Helianthus annuus debriae). Now, I admit that there were many good options. I like almost all your flowers, everyone, they’re great. But the sunflower has both low/bushy/wild and tall farmed variants, so you get them by the road as you drive and in immense numbers on farms. It can grow huge. It produces great eating; to compete one needs one of the tree flowers, which could be argued should not get to compete both as trees and as flowers. And settling the debate, for this writer at least, is that the sunflower symbolizes my wife to me, and that I’m from Kansas.
  • Worst: Kentucky, Nebraska, goldenrod (Solidago putridiae). Even if you’re not allergic to it, the pollination process has the same appeal as socks not changed for a week. This is your flower? What’s the state fruit, durian? It was between that and the sagebrush, Nevada’s state flower, and I went back and forth.

State tree:

  • Best: California, California redwood (Sequoia sempervirens). I like almost all the trees, but when your tree is up to thirty feet across and about a football field high…any questions?
  • Worst: Arkansas, pine tree. Not because I do not like pine trees, but because you bacon hounds can’t even pick out a particular pine tree and own it. You need to hire a forester and make up your mind. This is even worse than Washington’s western hemlock, a tree most Washingtonians have never seen and couldn’t identify.

State insect (no joke):

  • Best: about twenty states, the honeybee (Apis etcetera). I can’t really argue with this. It may not be very original, but without it, a lot of agriculture would not occur, and honeybees rarely sting aggressively.
  • Worst: Delaware, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Tennessee, the ladybug (Coccinellidae aphidlunchicae). Where’s the originality? Now, if New York had chosen the cockroach, that would be owning it with pure class. I’m told that in some parts of NYC, the gangs fight cavalry battles mounted on hardy giant fighting cockroaches.

State butterfly:

  • Best: Florida, zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia). There are not many ugly butterflies, of course, but this one is very Floridian (not enough so to wake up in its own soiled underwear at the Walpurgismart women’s bathroom, but you get what I mean), and quite appealing.
  • Worst: California, dogface butterfly (Delicus canis). This is for screwing up the category by picking a lackluster butterfly and making it your state bug. Do not do this again, okay?

State gem:

  • Best: Kentucky, Tennessee, Tennessee river pearl. They get pearls from freshwater mussels. Honest.
  • Worst: New Hampshire, smoky quartz. I’m not feeling it.

State mineral:

  • Best: Alabama, hematite. I can’t tell you how it can sometimes look like gunmetal and others like blood, but it fascinates me.
  • Worst: Vermont, talc. Anything mainly sprinkled on baby butts can’t be a state symbol.

State rock/stone:

  • Best: Colorado, Yule marble. Pale, pretty and sculptable.
  • Worst: Massachusetts, Plymouth Rock (the state historical rock). How? Why? Because they basically neglected it for generations, even letting it break in half, and some guy hauling it to use in front of his barn, that’s why. Massachusetts is heavily into state rocks and has several categories, including the Roxbury puddingstone, which as far as I’m concerned is just digging themselves deeper. Know when to fold ’em, Mass.

State soil:

  • Best: none.  Everyone can claim ‘our dirt is special,’ and it’s all useful, but at the end of the day, it’s still a dirt.
  • Worst: Florida, Myakka fine sand. Because that’s not dirt, that’s sand, you clowns.

State fruit:

  • Best: Idaho, huckleberry. There are so few things huckleberries cannot make better.
  • Worst: New Hampshire, pumpkin. Pick one, take a bite out of it, and let me know.

State beverage:

  • Best: New Hampshire, apple cider.
  • Worst: about twenty states, milk. I like milk, but this is so, so, so obviously at the behest of the same dairy lobby grouches who tried to say you couldn’t call soy milk ‘milk’ because it didn’t come from a cow. If your wife feeds your baby, that doesn’t come from a cow either; does that mean it isn’t milk? Love dairy products, want to slap the dairy lobby repeatedly with a Brie wheel. Imported from France, of course.

State dessert/pie/whatever:

  • Best: South Dakota, kuchen. A sort of cake pie rooted directly in heritage. Honorable mention to Texas for strudel, which honors the rich German traditions of the hill country and other parts.
  • Worst: Missouri, ice cream cone. This is why you guys lost both the pre-Civil War and the Civil War. You produce so much great agriculture, almost as good as Kansas when you make an effort and wear your shoes, and the best thing you can come up with for a state dessert is this. Missouri probably has more Germans than Berlin. Nothing? Nada? Nicht? Ach.

State vegetable:

  • Best: New Mexico, chiles and frijoles (pinto beans). As dearly as I would like to pick Washington’s Walla Walla sweet onions, that combination is insurmountable.
  • Worst: Idaho, potatoes. Potatoes are delicious, and Idaho takes justifiable pride in this state symbol (take a look at our license plates), but Idaho sends all its best potatoes out of state and sticks the locals with the culls. This is downworthy. This calls for a ten-minute misconduct penalty.

State cultural symbols (from amidst a wide variety of categories):

  • Best three:
  1. Alaska sport, dog mushing. It really is; they love that stuff, and the rules and mushers firmly protect the dogs, who love to mush.
  2. Oregon mother, Tabitha Moffatt Brown. A woman who survived many hardships to champion education for children totally deserves this.
  3. Arizona firearm, the Colt single-action revolver. History and symbolism.
  • Worst three:
  1. Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, Virginia, Wyoming language, English. Did you/we really need to do that? And this is coming from a die-hard opponent of bilingual public education and governmental function, someone who insists that newcomers take it upon themselves to learn English. Plus, I work with it. English is a nightmare to learn to speak and write eloquently, and most of y/our states are in the bottom tier of education in it, so this choice is disrespected by y/our actions.
  2. Alabama bible, an ancient book used to swear in Jefferson Davis. You all need to be reconstructed, and this is coming from someone who loves historical artifacts.
  3. Florida opera, ‘opera programs.’ Well, that makes so much more sense than making your state opera ‘non-opera programs,’ now, doesn’t it?

State colors:

  • Best: New Mexico, old Spain’s red and gold. Pure culture. A close second is Delaware’s colonial blue and buff.
  • Worst: North Carolina, red and blue. I’ll go take a nap now.

State flags:

  • Best: New Mexico. Weaves Spanish red and gold with a Zia sun symbol, a simple, distinctive and elegant synthesis of the state’s deep heritages.
  • Worst: Mississippi. For keeping the Rebel battle flag, which basically washes the faces of a third of Mississippians in an emblem that represented their ancestors’ continued slavery.

State seals:

  • Best: Virginia, simple and true to its history by molding Classical imagery into the Revolutionary motif. Honorable mention: Texas, really crisp and symbolic without a lot of pics of people plowing, cows, and such.
  • Worst: Washington. While it is simple, and does memorialize the state’s namesake, the problem there is that said namesake barely had any idea of future Washington, or future Oregon Territory. It symbolizes nothing about the actual qualities of the state. Most state seals are entirely too busy, to the point where they say little, but it’s also possible to botch simplicity.

State songs:

  • Best three:
  1. Arkansas: “Arkansas.” Sounded and felt exciting, descriptive, passionate.
  2. Connecticut: “Yankee Doodle.” Someone find me an older state song so purely rooted in history and pride. You can’t, not both as old and as proud.
  3. Michigan: “Michigan, My Michigan.” A bit wistful, but moving. It struck me so much like what Michigander friends have said they feel about their homeland. I guess it is an official song, not the official song, but one has to establish a cutoff somewhere. Utah or Rhode Island should have held this spot.
  • Worst three:
  1. New Jersey: for not having one. Doesn’t have one. I came with an open mind. Where’s your pride? The unofficial songs are lousy.
  2. Virginia: for also not having one, because they evidently can’t agree on how to replace the old deeply racist lyrics. You have “O Shenandoah” right in front of you: what more could you want?
  3. Delaware (“Our Delaware”), Idaho (“Here We Have Idaho”) and Ohio (“Beautiful Ohio”) are such a fail in melody that the lyrics become moot. Don’t do this again.

Song comments:

  • Why Montana doesn’t adopt John Denver’s “Wild Montana Skies” is a mystery. You hear it, and it has you smiling at the idea of crossing the border into Montana.
  • Hawaii gets credit for a native language version (although it unfortunately proves that uninspiring tunes are the universal language).
  • A surprising number are to the tune of “Oh Christmas Tree.”
  • Kentucky fixed theirs; the old version was about the most racist thing ever. I heard Paul Robeson sing the original; that was poignant.
  • Some states have five or more songs, which was more than was reasonable to ask of me.
  • Whoever made “Hang On, Sloopy” the Ohio state rock song needs to be prosecuted; what an atrocity. It is a major reason I root against Ohio State, this recidivist crime against music.
  • I thought “Rhode Island, It’s For Me” was inspiring.
  • “Utah, This Is The Place” had great storytelling lyrics with a taproot deep into their culture and history, but a tune that didn’t measure up to them.
  • “On, Wisconsin” is straightforward and laconic, symbolic of the state and its motto.
  • I’ve always been fond of Kansas’ “Home on the Range,” except that there aren’t many antelope in Kansas, the buffalo don’t roam much, and I hear plenty of discouraging words from it. You have to be living up to your song or it’s not working out.

Demonym:

  • Best: Indiana, Hoosier. Means nothing else in the language (when was the last time you went out hoosing? outhoosing? “Come here and help me hoose!”?), well known and embraced with pride.
  • Worst: Connecticuter or Connecticutian. The first lands on the ear with a literary clank, or sounds like an As-Seen-on-TV accessory. The second makes one think of capital punishment methods. You have a perfectly good demonym, ‘Nutmegger,’ one of the best in fact. What else do you need?

Quarter:

  • Best three:
  1. Maine 2003. The lighthouse and the fishing boat speak for themselves.
  2. Oklahoma 2008. The scissor-tailed flycatcher and sunflowers are an elegant surprise to the viewer who might have expected some covered wagon motif. I like it a lot.
  3. Tennessee 2002. Three stars plus a fiddle, guitar and trumpet, eloquent enough for first place. The only flaw is that underneath the instruments, they feel it necessary to tell you that this refers to ‘musical heritage.’ Really? I thought trumpets and violins were part of your construction heritage! Or your moonshine heritage! Who could have guessed? Among the best symbolism; among the dumbest insults to the viewer’s intelligence. New Hampshire needs the caption, because only people familiar with their rock formation have any idea why it belongs on a coin. If your caption is redundant, you must be marked down.
  • Worst three:
  1. Wisconsin 2004. A dairy cow, a cheese wheel and an ear of corn. Not a thing about any aspect of the state that is not commercially driven (and highly protectivist, historically speaking, doing things such as outlawing margarine). My first thought when I saw it: their state dairy/ag lobby simply bought this. Even the position is uninspiring.
  2. North Carolina 2001. The first flight of the Wright Brothers was important, but I look at this and gather that you have accomplished nothing more, in which you take pride, than having a couple of Yankees from the Ohio Valley briefly get their plane off the ground. Your quarter should tell us about something else.
  3. Ohio 2002. Whose idea was this? The state outline is the only good part. An astronaut, a plane that first flew in some other state. We get that John Glenn and the Wrights are from that region. Got nothing else, Ohio? Seriously?

State nickname:

  • Best three:
  1. Alaska: the Last Frontier. And it is. Three words and the picture is painted. Class.
  2. Wyoming: the Equality State. With all its scenery, cowboyness and Indian war battleground history, it chooses to celebrate something greater. Cowgirl up.
  3. Virginia: the Old Dominion State. There is something richly traditional about the feel of Virginia, and this captures that.
  • Worst three:
  1. Illinois: the Prairie State. I get that it was better than ‘the Lincoln State,’ but seriously?
  2. Washington: the Evergreen State. Nearly half of Washington is brown nearly all the time, so this dismisses that part’s residents, which in fact is exactly the attitude of the side with trees, and they do not see what’s flawed about that.
  3. North Dakota: the Peace Garden State. What? I’m all for peace gardens and friendship with the Canadians, but is that all you truly have to say?

Nickname comments:

  • While I fundamentally like all the ones that incorporate a demonym or nickname, it would have been impossible to pick one that stood out. Rank all those fourth.
  • This area has a lot of good choices even beyond those. No disrespect intended except where specifically noted.

State mottoes:

  • Best three:
  1. New Hampshire, “Live free or die.” Any questions?
  2. West Virginia, Montani semper liberi (“Mountaineers are always free,” Latin). You go, West Virginia (even though those are in fact hills).
  3. North Carolina, Esse quam videri (“To be, rather than to seem,” Latin). Please think about this. Actions, not words. Being, not doing. Reality, not cosmetics. Truth, not bullshit. What a superb sentiment to associate with your whole state. The Tarheels got this one right.
  • Worst three:
  1. Florida, “In God we trust.” You could not come up with anything better than the national motto? All religious mottos are a fail because they exclude some people, but in a sea of motto fails, Florida, you sink below.
  2. Washington, Al-ki. (“Bye and bye,” Chinook jargon). Like wow, dude. Pass the bong. This made a lot less sense before Washington legalized weed. The only thing meritorious about it is that it’s in an indigenous language rather than Latin. Nothing against Latin, but Native languages are fundamentally more American.
  3. Indiana, “The Crossroads of America.” Because that is not a motto. That’s a nickname! That says nothing about your state’s culture or philosophy, simply its geography. I was stunned to learn that this was actually the ‘motto.’

Motto comments:

  • As mentioned, all mottos invoking religion are basic failures. That wipes out about a dozen.
  • Many are far too long. Can’t you summarize?
  • Several refer to martial endeavor…a martial endeavor that involved trying to keep as many as half their residents in human bondage. That is divisive, whereas mottos should unify.
  • I had thought Idaho’s Esto perpetua (“Let it be perpetual”) was terrible until I saw the rest. Ugh. Overall, there are as many state seals, flags and nicknames I found inspirational as there are mottos I found bleak, blathery or just blah.

I have been considering this material for a long time. Feel free to throw your state’s rotten fruit at me in the comments. However, bear in mind that I am considering a sequel: true state mottoes as judged by the evidence before us, and some of them will sting. Example: Mississippi, Manete in paupertate (“Remain in poverty,” Latin). And everyone’s going to get it, most especially my home state of Kansas, because that’s just how it has to be.

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12 thoughts on “The best and worst of state symbols”

  1. I would love for you to look up Florida Cracker. It will explain the Cracker horse. It is a tough little horse that is made to go through the pine forests and palmetto fields hunting cows through the Central Florida region . I say hunting cows because that is basically what the cowboys had to do. Hunt for the cows in the woods since there were no plains or pastures. This was before Walt of course. In fact, if my memory serves, our cowboys were called cowhunters. I will leave it to you to look up the term Cracker. A good book to read about old Florida is A Land Remembered by Patrick Smith. For me, it is one of those books that I still think about even though it has been 15+ years since I read it. In fact…where did I put that book. I am going to read it again. 🙂

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    1. Without the slightest doubt, Sordie. That would be too hilarious to ignore. At the least, honorable mention material for sure. That would be like the mascot of Washington’s Evergreen State College (the geoduck, which if you do not know, is this enormous-footed clam): so unique and pizzazzy and regionally appropriate that it could not be ignored.

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  2. I wasn’t aware that Evergreen held the gooey duck in such high esteem. That skyrockets them to the pole position for outstanding mascot selection, barely edging out Santa Cruz U and their beloved Banana Slug.

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    1. The Banana Slug is tough competition, without a doubt. TESC has to bring its A-game to compete. If you look them up, they actually have a mascot who dresses up as a geoduck, and their fight song sings of squirting at the foe. As you might guess, TESC is somewhat of a countercultural institution. Washington being Washington, it’s located in the state capital.

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      1. Hilarious!

        Go, Geoducks go,
        Through the mud and the sand,
        let’s go.
        Siphon high, squirt it out,
        swivel all about,
        let it all hang out.

        Go, Geoducks go,
        Stretch your necks when the tide
        is low
        Siphon high, squirt it out,
        swivel all about,
        let it all hang out.

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  3. I’m surprised Texas wasn’t mentioned more often, especially for our flag. I am of course, a little biased.

    This was interesting. I had to shake my head at some of these. The sad part is that someone had to really like these and think they were a good idea.

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    1. Well, no offense is meant when I say this, David, but in a situation like this, Texas is just one of fifty competitors, like Delaware or Oregon. Of course, a list like this cuts both ways. Texas was conspicuous for its lack of worsts, as much for a lack of bests. With regard to the flag, I definitely agree that the simplicity and history there are compelling; it was a case of too many good competitors. And on the seal, I felt that said simplicity and history came more into contrast with the busyness of so many others. Great to have you stop by!

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  4. Thank you for the hilarity-infused education. As a MIssourian, I will immediately begin my lobbying efforts to change the State Baked Good to Povitca Bread. We have a HUGE slavic population throughout the state and that would be far more fitting. I think the ice cream cone thing came because it was first introduced at the St. Louis World’s Fair?
    You get extra humor points for inventing genus names for the state fauna. Yes, I noticed.

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    1. I’m so glad someone noticed my Latin names. I was a bit worried that one might not. Povitca bread, eh? Now that’s the kind of state symbol I can sink my teeth into. As is probably quite obvious, the more purely symbolic of the state, the better. Make ’em Show You. Which, speaking of nicknames, is a really good one in an area where I had a hard time picking winners.

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