Tuckahoes. Leatherheads. Clam-catchers. Mudheads. Beetheads. Toothpickers. Cockneys. These are all old nicknames for inhabitants of specific American states. Can you guess which ones?* And what ever happened to these regional names?
“There have been many more or less opprobrious (but occasionally flattering) nicknames for the people of the different states,” wrote H.L. Mencken in “Some Opprobrious Nicknames.” Some of his examples:
Almost every American has heard Hoosier for an Indianan, Wolverine for a Michigander, Sucker for an Illinoisan, Cracker for a Georgian, Blue Hen’s Chicken for a Delawarean, Tar Heel for a North Carolinian, Clay-eater for any kind of Carolinian, Puke for a Missourian, Mud-cat for a Mississippian, Lizard or Yellowhammer for an Alabamian, Buckeye for an Ohioan, Hawkeye for an Iowan, Jayhawker for a Kansan, Gopher for a Minnesotan, Okie for an Oklahoman, Webfoot for an Oregonian, and Badger for a Wisconsinite.
This American Speech article is extracted from the forty pages Mencken dedicated to the topic of nicknames of states and the inhabitants thereof in the last of his three-volume book, The American Language. This last volume came out in 1948, the article in 1949. His assumption that “almost every American has heard” of these nicknames probably wouldn’t be very current today. Mencken explores where some of the nicknames came from (though not all, as some seem truly inexplicable). For example, he notes that “Tuckahoe for a Virginian derives from the Indian name of a sort of truffle that the early settlers were forced to dig up and eat in times of scarcity,” and that “Toothpicker for an Arkansan was derived from Arkansas toothpick, a frontier name for the bowie knife.” But most of the origins can only be guessed.
The nicknames that do survive are mostly associated with college sports teams. Television has carried those far and wide. But TV, the most ubiquitous venue of popular culture before the internet, has also done much to homogenize American English, scrubbing away at accents and regionalisms. Prune-pickers (Californians), Boll weevils (Texans), Goober-grabbers (Georgians) and Muskrats (Delawarean) might be ok with that.
Mencken also excerpted some of the juicier nicknames of city-dwellers. He included Kokomokes (Kokomo, IN), Peterboors (Peterborough, Ont), Omahogs (Omaha, NE), Kazooks (Kalamazoo, MI), and Peekskillers (Peekskill, NY). There was “Chicagorilla” from “the time the late Al Capone was in his glory and murder was one of the chief industries of the town.” Sometimes called the Sage of Baltimore, Mencken rued that “Baltimoron” was fading out of favor, “much to my grief.” “Conchs” for the denizens of Key West, FL, survives in the tourism-boosting “Conch Republic.”
According to David Shulman, Mencken’s earliest source of nicknames was a 1843 edition of the newspaper Brother Jonathan. Shulman found a slightly earlier listing in Uncle Sam’s Large Almanack of 1842 (probably printed in 1841). “Brother Jonathan” was a personification of the “American type,” first the New Englander and then more generally the American. He was akin to John Bull of England. The concept of Brother Jonathan would be eventually overtaken by Uncle Sam, that personification of the U.S. government.
In his article, Shulman wonders if Mencken’s nickname of “Beetheads” for Texans wasn’t a typo. Shulman suggests “Beefheads,” which he tracks to 1872, as being more likely.
While it may be harder to argue that the nation is more civil today, the old rivalries and disparagements between states have subdued—at least as measured by the loss of much of this lexicon. Immigration and internal migration, which characterized most of the twentieth century, may also have helped to soften the difference between states’ residents, and thus erase a lot of these nicknames.
*These are the inhabitants of, in order: Virginia, Pennsylvania. New Jersey, Tennessee, Texas, Arkansas, and New York.