Almost everyone knows that each state of the Union has its own flag. State flags, however, are just the most visible elements of an elaborate, esoteric system of legalized symbols that characterize and codify our united states. For example, "Do You Realize??" by the Flaming Lips was just named the official Oklahoma State Rock Song. It's time we were all exposed to the bizarre symbology of state identity-politics.
A Lesser-Known Tale of Badgers and Suckers
To begin with, some of the most well-known state symbols allude to lesser-known meanings and histories. I grew up in Wisconsin and only recently learned that the Badger State title originally refers not to Bucky, nor to the savage beast itself, but to lead miners in the 1820s and 30s. These miners moved from prospect to prospect in southwestern Wisconsin, traveling light and often, with little money for luxury. When winter came and conditions worsened, those miners too far from home to migrate would dig themselves sheltering caves in the hills -- like badgers. These temporary dwellings could be abandoned if a prospect proved fruitless, without much regret; and if the lead pickings were good, the lucky miner could fluff up his badger hole or upgrade to a more traditional Euro-American residence. For this practice Wisconsin miners were dubbed "badgers" -- a jibe that was soon appropriated as a proud, statewide nickname. Bucky didn't come along until 1949; the furry, quadruped badger, notoriously vicious when cornered, wasn't declared Wisconsin's state animal until 1957.
Other miners migrated south for the winter to the far end of Illinois, much like the region's sucker fish; which earned them the nickname of Suckers, and their state of Illinois its unenviable nickname, The Sucker State.
The Rebel Woodpecker
How entertaining and informative. But the real fun starts when these state symbols more shamelessly approach the ridiculous. Let us consider some of the finest specimens:
Eat and Drink to the Honor of the State
The Silly, Sentimental, and Insulting Songs that Define Us
Usually they're just hilarious, but a few of these songs bear some heinously outdated lyrics. With a nod to the old Eternal Feminine, North Carolina praises its women as Queens of the Forest, "So graceful, so constant, yet to gentlest breath trembling." The real trouble comes, though, with old minstrel tunes that portray humble "darkies" praising "old Massa" in song and romanticizing their cotton-picking servitude. Kentucky changed the language for "My Old Kentucky Home" in 1986 to glaze over such indiscretions. But Virginia still seems to have trouble acknowledging its error, and simply demoted its song, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," to the status of "state song emeritus." Virginia still seeks an adequate replacement, preferably one that doesn't idealize slavery -- but, of course, those are hard to come by.
Every State For Itself
While many designations seem absurd, most aim to represent some definite aspect of a state's intended "character." Legislators want icons that mean something, that give you a sense of the land and its people -- something like the bolo tie. Arizona named the bolo tie its official neckwear back in 1971. And more recently, in 2007, New Mexico added the same to its list of emblems. Apparently, it was an Arizona silversmith who invented the string-and-buckle necktie when he took off his hatband to avoid losing the precious buckle during a high-wind horse ride, and hung it around his neck. This discovery occurred as late as 1940, but the bolo's become such an icon that it's hard to imagine a Wild West without it.