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Overseas Dilemma: How to Say Where I Come From

2 Dec

When traveling abroad, the first question you’re asked after you introduce yourself is almost always, “Where are you from?”

As an American, this question poses an interesting linguistic dilemma. Our country is blessed (or cursed?) with an exceptional number of different names, abbreviations, and nicknames. When you’re in your home country, you don’t think too much about this, because it’s not often that you actually have to specify the name of the nation that you’re in.

When a foreign acquaintance poses the aforementioned question at, say, a youth hostel, my brain usually experiences a delay of a few hundred milliseconds as I mentally scroll through the Rolodex of names for the United States of America, attempting to weigh the pros and cons of each one:

1. The United States. Given that “the United States of America” is definitely too wordy and would probably earn you some strange looks (although not as many as “the Republic of the United States of America”), “the United States” seems like a reasonable alternative. Except that like most Americans, I’m a fan of convenience and efficiency. “The United States” is still too clunky to fit in the drive-thru of my mouth, so sometimes it sounds awkward and unnecessarily verbose, as if my interlocutor had never even heard of this country before and needed a detailed explanation of how federalism works.

2. The US. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the liberally truncated form of “the United States.” It’s easier to say, but it risks not being understood, especially when your newly-met acquaintance is not a native English speaker. Acronyms are not universal (for example, NATO in France is OTAN and the UN is the ONU).  It could theoretically be misinterpreted as “University of Saskatchewan,” “unconditioned stimulus,” or “Ugandan Shilling,” all of which would make you sound crazy.

3. America. It has a dignified air to it, and it’s fairly current among Brits. However, it doesn’t translate so well with speakers of other languages. For the French, “Amérique” typically evokes not only the United States but also Canada, if not the entire North and South American continents (the French seem to be a few hundred years late on the memo that we’ve actually divided “the New World” into two parts). Even for Americans, the word has a bit of a bombastic quality, usually reserved for 19th century patriotic hymns or impassioned political rants about how Mexicans are ruining everything.

4. The States. Ooh, would you like a chai tea latte with that plate of pretentiousness? Even though “the States” is a convenient and common moniker in the rest of the English-speaking world, requiring the smallest number of syllables, no true red-blooded American can say it without feeling slightly treasonous. Dropping off the rest of the name around “States” almost feels sacrilegious, like the habits of a disillusioned ex-pat who’s trying to “act European.”

5. The USA. This one has certain advantages, namely that it seems to be recognized by speakers of many languages (unlike the “US” acronym). Probably because they’ve seen news clips of people chanting “USA! USA! USA!” Which is precisely why you’d rather not use it.

6. Say your state, not your country. If I want to avoid the name dilemma altogether, I can opt to tell people that I’m from New Hampshire instead. There’s one minor problem with this method: nobody knows where the hell New Hampshire is. It doesn’t fit into the average foreigner’s perception of the continguous United States:

A foreigner's view of America

Since “New Hampshire” is usually met with a blank stare or a face contorted in confusion, I have to qualify: “It’s near Boston.” If that fails, “near New York” will usually do the trick. Then they ask me if I’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty.

In practice, I most often use “the United States” with non-English speakers, despite its wordiness. With Brits, Aussies, etc., I usually assume they can already tell that I’m American because of my accent, so I typically say “New Hampshire,” followed by the clarifier “in the US,” “in the States,” or “in America,” depending on my mood.

It’s near Boston.


Geographic Curiosities: the East-West Divide in Wisconsin

5 Jun

Those who know me well know that I have an unfettered love for maps.

This love reflects my long-standing fascination with geography. It’s been some time since I devoted an intellectually-oriented post on this blog to the subject (like this one from a few years ago). But sometimes things just spark my interest.

One such thing is the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of the thirteen states I haven’t been to (aside from a brief layover in Milwaukee, which I don’t count). In other words, it is essentially a mystery to me. I have no idea what life on the ground is actually like, but from my omniscient cartographic bird’s eye view, I have noticed an interesting pattern.

That is, eastern Wisconsin and western Wisconsin often do not like to be the same.

This east/west demarcation was first brought to my attention by the famous pop/soda/coke map, which plots the dominant term for a generic soft drink across the United States:

You’ll notice that in western Wisconsin, “pop” dominates as it does in the vast majority of the Midwest (with the exception of the large “soda” bastion around St. Louis). Eastern Wisconsin is somewhat unusual in its preference for “soda.”

A similar pattern emerges with another dialectal term – that used for the drinking apparatus commonly found in schools or public parks. The three most commonly used terms – “water fountain,” “drinking fountain,” and “bubbler,” are mapped by the Harvard Dialect Survey:

“Water fountain” is used by speakers on the purple dots; “drinking fountain” on green; and “bubbler” on red. Although the pattern in Wisconsin is not exactly the same as for pop/soda, we notice a strong concentration of “bubbler” in the eastern part of the state. (But not by coincidence – the word “bubbler” is derived from the trademarked name of the original water fountain developed by the Kohler Company in Kohler, Wisconsin).

After seeing these dialect maps several years ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the east-west divide in Wisconsin until I watched this fascinating lecture series from Stanford about U.S. electoral geography. In one lecture, the professor discusses the divergent voting patterns of eastern and western Wisconsin, which apparently dates back to the earliest days of the state’s history. To some extent, this pattern is still evident in the modern day. The east/west split can perhaps best be seen in the results for the 1988 and 2004 Presidential elections.

1988 vote by county:

2004 vote by county:

(These maps come from Dave Leip’s wonderful online atlas. Note that the colour scheme follows the pre-2000 convention, with Democratic-leaning counties in red and Republican-leaning counties in blue).

Again, the pattern is not perfectly consistent, but the counties do show a remarkable level of contiguity in their voting preferences. We are certainly not dealing with a north-south divide.

In the Stanford lecture, the professor speculates that the divergent politics could be explained, at least initially, by settlement patterns. Namely, the eastern (or more conservative) area was dominated by people of German ancestry, whereas the western (or more liberal) area had more Scandinavian settlers.

Modern ancestry maps can shed some light on this hypothesis:

Now, surely some of these geographic differences (particularly the dialectal ones) are probably better explained by things like population density than they are by ancestry. The eastern half of the state is clearly the more urbanized overall, as demonstrated by the density map below. But this makes the political division all the more interesting, as the general trend among American whites is for those in more rural areas to vote Republican, and vice versa. This seems to suggest that ancestry or some kind of deep-rooted culture in each part of the state really is important, because it trumps the national tendency.

So, what do you think? Are these geographic patterns all just a vast coincidence? There are certainly few other states with such a seemingly neatly defined duality. But whether there really is a ‘tangible’ east-west difference can only be determined by people who know Wisconsin well. Any natives care to chime in?