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Take a Gander

Traverse CityEvery summer my wife and I head north from Illinois to the “big lake” — Lake Michigan, of course — at Pentwater and the tourist attractions of Traverse City, Mich., where her daughter lives. Along the way, we meet lots of Michiganders.

A resident of Ohio is an Ohioan. Of Wisconsin, a Wisconsinite. Of Iowa, an Iowan. Someone who lives in Michigan, however, is best known not as a Michiganian, but as a Michigander.

Is that a joke? Or a proud designation? Despite the association with geese, it seems to be the latter.

According to recent polls, and probably not-so-recent ones, the majority of Michigan residents prefer to be known as Michiganders. The Oxford English Dictionary finds that term as far back as 1838, one year after Michigan gained statehood, in a Massachusetts newspaper writing about a railroad to Detroit: “This is part of one which the Michiganders are making across St. Joseph’s.”

And from 1842, the OED finds in a Vermont newspaper, “‘The Vermonter’ does well enough, … but come to the New Hampshirer, or Massachusettser, or Connecticutter, or Michigander — ‘a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’”

But in 1848 a certain U.S. congressman from Illinois, the Hon. A. Lincoln, tried to make a joke by excoriating as “the great Michigander” the Democratic candidate for president that year, General Lewis Cass, veteran of the War of 1812 and governor of the Michigan Territory from 1813 to 1831.

“But in my hurry I was very near closing this subject of military tails [sic] before I was done with it,” Lincoln told the House of Representatives on July 27, 1848. “There is one entire article of the sort I have not discussed yet — I mean the military tail you Democrats are now engaged in dovetailing into the great Michigander.

“Yes, sir; all his biographies (and they are legion) have him in hand, tying him to a military tail, like so many mischievous boys tying a dog to a bladder of beans.”

Cass lost the presidential election to Zachary Taylor, of Lincoln’s Whig Party. Was it because of the nickname? Whatever the case, “Michigander” survived, its dignity apparently intact, to the present day.

Nowadays, therefore, we don’t crack a smile when someone talks about Michiganders. After all, we come from a place once nicknamed the Sucker State. And on the way to Michigan, of course, we pass through the land of people known as Hoosiers.

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