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That one time in Michigan: When we became ‘Michiganders’

That one time in Michigan: When we became ‘Michiganders’

(Image via Canva)

By Karel Vega

June 12, 2024

…Or did we?

We recently asked our readers a question that we had a feeling would stir up strong opinions:

“Is it ‘Michigander’ or ‘Michiganian’?”

The terms are called demonyms—words that are used to identify a group of people. But which one is the right one here in the Great Lakes State?

Here at The ‘Gander, we’re just as invested in this debate as you are, although admittedly a touch biased. But the scores of comments we’ve received so far have made it clear that the answer isn’t so clear-cut.

So today, we’re diving into a quick history of “Michigander” and “Michiganian” and trying to get to the bottom of which one is right.

Let’s begin.

Origins and the Lincoln story

That one time in Michigan: When we became 'Michiganders'

Lewis Cass pictured in 1855 (L) and Abraham Lincoln—then a member of the US House of Representatives—around 1846 (R). (Source: Collage via public domain photos)

Indisputably, the most famous origin story for the term “Michigander” dates back to 1848 when Abraham Lincoln—then a Whig representative in Congress who was running for his party’s ticket in that year’s election—took a stab at the Democratic nominee: Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan.

In the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, Lincoln argued that the Democrats were exaggerating their military accomplishments to get the vote by riding on the coattails of the late General and President Andrew Jackson. In a speech to Congress on July 27, 1848, Lincoln said:

“Like a horde of hungry ticks you have stuck to the tail of the Hermitage lion (referring to Jackson here) to the end of his life and you are still sticking to it, and drawing a loathsome sustenance from it, after he is dead. … But in my hurry I was very near closing on the subject of military tails before I was done with it. 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 onto the great Michigander (in reference to Cass).

As the Detroit News reports, calling Cass a goose was an insult, meant to imply that he was simply a goose-like follower.

Many people continue to believe this to be the origin story of “Michigander,” with even the 2006 edition of the Oxford Dictionary tracing it back to Lincoln. However, earlier uses have since been found, including an 1838 reference to “Michigander” in The Hampshire Gazette and an 1842 in the Bellows Falls Gazette (The Oxford Dictionary has also updated its information regarding the origins).

The term “Michiganian,” meanwhile, traces its roots back to the latter half of the 19th century, when it began being referenced in The Collections of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society in the 1870s. The collection includes accounts of the lives of pioneers in the early decades of the state’s history. I was able to dig up a digitized version of the 1896 edition that includes two references to the term “Michiganian” (and none for Michigander).

According to the Department of Natural Resources, “Michiganian” has also been used in the magazine Michigan History since just after the turn of the 20th century.

‘Michigander’ vs. ‘Michiganian’

So, what is the rightful term for the residents of this great state? The truth is, it still pretty much depends on who you ask.

A 2011 survey found that 58% of Michigan residents preferred “Michigander,” 12% preferred “Michiganian,” and the remaining 23% either had no preference or disliked both terms.

While an archived State of Michigan web page from 2009 claimed that the website of the Michigan Historical Center uses Michiganian, it appears that updated State of Michigan pages use the term interchangeably. The state’s About Michigan page reads: “Whether you call yourself a Michigander or a Michiganian, both words mean you are one of nearly 10 million people who call the Great Lakes state home.”

Our own state leaders have used the words interchangeably as well, with governors like Jim Blanchard, John Engler, and Jennifer Granholm using “Michiganian.” Current governor Gretchen Whitmer and her predecessor Rick Snyder, however, have opted to use “Michigander.”

In 2017, the Michigan Legislature moved towards ending the argument by passing a package of bills that included a section directing the Michigan Historical Commission to swap references to “Michiganian” in favor of “Michigander”—which then-Gov. Snyder signed into law.

But since things can never be so easy, there is one final thing to consider. “Michiganian” is still the term for Michigan natives recognized by the United States Government Publishing Office’s style guide. That’s the office that produces information products for all three branches of the federal government.

To close, use the term that makes you happy! But on our end, it will always be “Michigander.”

Author

  • Karel Vega

    Coming from a long background in public radio, Karel Vega strives to find stories that inform and inspire local communities. Before joining The ‘Gander, Karel served as managing editor at WKAR, the NPR affiliate in East Lansing, Michigan.

CATEGORIES: LOCAL HISTORY
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