Demonyms find their place in our lexicon and across the country

As Halloween looms, we might think this word describes goblins, fiends and other hellions. Not so. It refers to Hoosiers and Yoopers and Yanks (oh, my!)—people hailing from particular locales.

Demonyms

You don’t have to wait until Halloween to spot demonyms.

The word doesn’t mean small devils. It’s the term for words that describe people from a particular place.

For example, what do you call people from Indiana? Well, if you live with an Indiana native, as I do, you learn that you call them Hoosiers, because that’s how people from South Bend to New Albany label themselves. (More on that curious preference later.)

Most demonyms in the English language have obvious constructions. Depending on how the place name ends—either with a vowel or a consonant—you can usually add an “n” (AlaskanNebraskan) or an “ian” (MichiganianWashingtonian).

Yet there are numerous variations and inconsistencies that preclude an absolute rule. For example, an Orlandoan (an Orlando resident) is not a Floridan but a Floridian, and someone from Baltimore (Baltimorean) is a Marylander, not a Marylandian.

What’s the demonym for Massachusetts residents? Massachusettsan? Massachusettsian? Massachusite?

A Wikipedia article on state demonyms notes that all those words have been used to describe someone from the Bay State. By Massachusetts law, “Bay Staters shall be the official designation of citizens of the commonwealth.” (As Massachusetts is technically a commonwealth, why aren’t its residents Bay Commonwealthiers?)

Islanders and Yinzers

Like Massachusetts, residents of other states may boast names other than standard demonyms to refer to themselves. Nebraskans are Cornhuskers; Iowans Hawkeyes; Wisconsinites Cheeseheads (no explanation needed for anyone who lives in or has visited the state).

If your home is in Hawaii, you are not a Hawaiian unless you are descended from the original Polynesian settlers. Everyone else is an Islander or a Hawaii resident. Locals also might say Kamaʻāina, a Hawaiian word to denote anyone from the islands regardless of their background.

As noted above, states may have several terms for their residents. What about cities in those states?

My son is a native Californian born in Santa Clarita (a Santa Claritan). Yet for the past three years he has worked back East in Pittsburgh and proudly calls himself a Yinzer, which supposedly is derived from yunz, Scotch-Irish for you. (You can learn more Pittsburghese here.)

Soos and Yoopers

Residents of Marquette, Michigan, are Yoopers, the term for people living in the Upper Peninsula of the Wolverine state.

Apparently people from Durango, Colorado, can’t make up their minds whether they are Durangoans, Durangotans or Durangotangs, the last of which sounds like a New World primate.

The suffix “-ite” pops up as a designator for residents of the Mile High City (Denverites). Raleighites designates those living in North Carolina’s capital. Casperites are also Wyomingites.

Salt Lakers claim Salt Lake City as home. Neighbors in Sault Ste. Marie hail each other as Soos (as well as Yoopers).

Knickerbocker, meaning a style of pants in Dutch and derived from a pseudonym of storyteller Washington Irving, once referred to residents of the Isle of Manhattan but has long gone out of style.

Who is an American?

We in the United States refer to ourselves as Americans, because our nation’s official name is the United States of America. Yet anyone living on the two American continents has a perfect right to the demonym American.

Outside the U.S., Yank usually means someone from the United States. To people living in the southern United States, however, a Yank, or Yankee, is any resident of a state north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River.

More precisely, a Yankee refers to a resident of the New England states: Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont. So why does New York City have a baseball team named the Yankees? Supposedly the word Yankee is a combination of the Dutch names Jan (John) and Kees (Cornelis), which often were paired together. The Dutch founded New Amsterdam, which became New York when the British took over.

Meaning of Hoosier

Assuming what the demonym is for a city or state can get you in trouble if you guess wrong. Wikipedia has several articles, however, that provide lists of standard demonyms. If the word you are looking for isn’t on one of them, it is always safe to refer to someone as a resident of a specific geographic area.

Getting back to Hoosier, I’m not sure why those living in the state of Indiana so fiercely defend that word as their moniker. According to Colin Woodard in “American Nations,” Hoosier is “a Southern slang term for a frontier hick.” That is somewhat confirmed by information posted on the website of the Indiana Historical Bureau, although it offers other plausible theories.

Regardless, thanks to the joint effort of former Indiana senators Joe Donnelly (D) and Dan Coats (R), the federal Government Printing Office style guide rules that Hoosier will exclusively refer to someone from the 19th state.

Bill Spaniel, ABC, is a communicator and PR expert based in California. A version of this post first ran on his blog.

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COMMENT

One Response to “Demonyms find their place in our lexicon and across the country”

    Carole Ivy says:

    Michiganders who live anywhere in the Upper Peninsula are called Yoopers, it’s not limited to people from Marquette. Those of us who live in Michigan’s mitten are called Trolls because we live under the bridge.

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