Symbol Overload

In America we have a lot of national symbols such as our flag, the Statue of Liberty and, of course, the bald eagle. Symbols are a good thing. They unite us by reminding us of our shared history and culture. In addition to our national icons, all fifty U.S. states have symbols designed to bring their people together and make them feel proud to hail from that state. Many of the symbols recognize a plant or animal that is native to the region or a product that the state is known for.

Each state now has a flag, a state bird and a state tree as well as a flower. And they all have a nickname which is usually included on their license plates. Some examples are: The Sunshine State (Florida), The Bluegrass State (Kentucky) and The Bay State (Massachusetts). Indiana’s is The Hoosier State. This is a peculiar one as no one knows the original meaning of the word “Hoosier” but outside of Indiana it has come to mean “an unsophisticated person with no class or couth.” Perhaps this is why they don’t include it on their license plates. Missouri’s nickname is, “The Show Me State.” But given the recent events in Ferguson they may need to change it to “The Show Me Your Hands State.” This would still be better than its unofficial nickname, “The Methamphetamine State.”


Also, “Thank you Mississippi.”

They all have a motto as well. Many have a religious angle like Florida’s maxim “In God we trust” (I have heard this somewhere before), or Arizona’s “Ditat Deus.” That’s Latin for “God enriches.” Others are very macho such as Mississippi’s “Virtute et armis” meaning “By valor and arms.” New Hampshire has one of the more interesting and succinct mottos, “Live free or die.” I like the” live free” part but the “or die” part seems a bit harsh. But Virginia has the strangest motto, “Sic semper tyrannis,” which translates into “Thus always to tyrants.” This, of course, is what John Wilkes Booth shouted after shooting Lincoln. Given Virginia’s leading role in the civil war, a more appropriate motto might be “paenitet fecimus omnium malorum“ which means, “Sorry for all the trouble we caused.”

Legislatures have been adding so many icons that now we have symbol overload. Today states have endorsed: songs, animals, insects, rocks, soils, reptiles, fruits and nuts to name just a few. Some have more than others. Texas has the most with sixty-two while Iowa’s legislature has only decided on thirteen. All fifty states have an official dirt while forty-five have a formal insect. Tennessee couldn’t decide on one insect so they have four. Only six endorse a particular nut. By the way, Alaska doesn’t have an official nut although unofficially it has to be Sarah Palin.

Although they haven’t endorsed a nut, Alaska does have an official firearm as do five others. Amazingly, Texas has not recognized a firearm despite the fact that nearly all of its citizens have at least one. Virginia, the home of the National Rifle Association, also hasn’t decided on a weapon but I’m sure they are working on it.

Some endorsements are questionable.

Some endorsements are questionable.

Many have endorsed particular foods. There are official fruits, vegetables, pastries and beverages. You would think that Massachusetts would lead the country in obesity (they are actually one of the least obese states) as they have an official muffin (corn), dessert (Boston cream pie), cookie (chocolate chip) and donut (Boston cream), yummy.

But when it comes to food, Oklahoma definitely takes the cake. Not only have they endorsed a fruit and a vegetable but in 1988 they recognized an entire meal. The official meal of Oklahoma is: fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbeque pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, strawberries, chicken fried steak, pecan pie and black eyed peas. No wonder the state ranks 7th in obesity. Their official beverage is milk and I don’t think they mean skim. By the way, no state has an official illness but if Oklahoma had one it would have to be heart disease.

Oklahoma has forty-nine symbols including a reptile, amphibian, cartoon character, rock and dinosaur. In addition, it has an official fossil which also happens to be a dinosaur. And the state has not one official song but five. This seems like a lot until you learn that Tennessee has thirteen – none of which are on my playlist.

Along with official songs there are a lot of state dances as well. Usually it’s the square dance, however, in North and South Carolina it’s the “shag.” The shag is a swing dance that originated at open-air beach parties on the Carolina coast. The Carolinas have several shag competitions each year that draw participants from all over. My guess is that many British tourists come to these events but leave disappointed as the term shag has a VERY different meaning in England.

As noted above, Texas has the most icons and the former Lone Star Republic has some of the more interesting ones as well. They include the official cooking implement (cast iron Dutch oven), footwear (cowboy boots which I believe every Texan is legally required to wear), snack (tortilla chips and salsa), and a vehicle. Surprisingly the sanctioned vehicle is not the pick-up truck but the chuck wagon. If you are wondering about the cowboy hat, don’t worry, a bill was recently filed to make the cowboy hat the official headgear. Although there might be some support for the baseball cap, the cowboy hat should pass easily.


On the other hand, New York has the rude dismiss.

Besides these symbols, most states now have an official language which in every case is English. The first state to recognize English as their formal language was Louisiana in 1807. Recently many others have done the same. One of the last was Arizona where a referendum making English the official language passed in 2006 with 50% of the electorate voting yes and another 24% voting “si.”


One Latina woman voted “noooo, noooo….”

Despite the fact that we are already overloaded with symbols, state legislatures are currently considering adding umpteen more. In April the governor of Idaho signed a bill making the giant salamander the official amphibian. And Maine legislators recently passed a bill making the whoopie pie the state dessert after an hour-and-a-half of testimony and debate. Currently there is a nasty battle in the Pennsylvania legislature over which cookie should be their official one. Chocolate chip seems to have the edge but you can’t underestimate the sugar cookie lobby.

But this type of bill doesn’t always pass. In the Whoopie Pie State a bill to make the Labrador Retriever the official dog recently died in committee. Damn them! At the same time Utah’s bill to make the Golden Retriever its official domestic animal failed. How could they vote against the Golden Retriever? They are so cute.

In Connecticut the legislature just passed a bill for a state children’s flower in honor of Michaela Petit, the young girl who was killed in a home invasion. This was a touching gesture. However, now it’s time for politicians to stop adding symbols and start addressing real issues such as budget deficits, crime and unemployment. In Missouri, the legislature is considering limiting their official symbols to the current number of twenty-eight. That makes sense.

John Wade, a frequent contributor to Unhinged Magazine, is a retired Chief Financial Officer who lives in Wildwood, Missouri.

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published with the permission of the author