A Brit’s Guide to American Regional Nicknames

Greenbay Packer fans don't seem to mind the Cheesehead nickname. (Flickr)

Green Bay Packers fans don’t seem to mind the Cheesehead nickname. (Flickr)

Just like the U.K. with its Potteries, Fens and Black Country, the U.S. has many regional nicknames. We’re all familiar with New York being the Big Apple but did you know that the Mile High City is Denver or that Big D is Dallas? It’s worth knowing some of these nicknames as Americans use them all the time. Additionally, the nicknames usually refer to something very specific, and interesting, about the city.

Chicago, for example, has a number of nicknames. Possibly the most well known is The Windy City and there’s some debate on the reason for this. If you’ve been to Chicago, you’d be forgiven for assuming it was because of the wind whistling in off Lake Michigan. However, there’s another theory that it’s because of the hot air that politicians used to (and still) spout. It’s also called Chi-Town (pronounced Shy Town), and The City of Big Shoulders. This nickname is taken from the 1916 poem, “Chicago”, written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Sandberg.

It begins:

“Hog Butcher for the World,

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;

Stormy, husky, brawling,

City of the Big Shoulders”

Detroit is nicknamed Motown, which many associate with the record label and music genre, but the name is actually a mash-up of motor and town; Detroit’s auto industry used to dominate the market. Los Angeles has perhaps the most nicknames. It’s known as the City of Angels because Los Angeles means “the angels” in Spanish. Tinseltown and La-la Land are nicknames it’s earned because of the celebrity connection, while The Big Orange refers to the fruit growing in the warm, sunny climate.

All states have a two letter abbreviation which is used for mailing purposes (and should never be omitted on an envelope). Like cities, many states also have nicknames and mottos, some more well known than others. While some have fairly obvious nicknames like Arizona being The Grand Canyon State, other nicknames are quite obscure.

For example, Colorado is nicknamed the Centennial State because it became a state in the year 1876, 100 years after the signing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Missouri has the strange nickname of The Show Me State, a name attributed to Representative Willard Van Diver. While attending an 1899 naval banquet in Philadelphia, Van Diver declared, “I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”

As if that’s not enough, some states have catchy slogans often seen on car license (registration) plates. Confusingly, these may or may not be the same as the semi-official nicknames above and are regularly changed to keep up with whatever tourism ads are currently in vogue. In line with its “Pure Michigan” campaign for example, 2013 saw the introduction of a shiny new plate with those words writ large.

Michigan License Plate

You can proudly support your state with a statement on the back of your car. (MG)

Inhabitants of U.S. regions also have nicknames, much in the way that England has Scousers, Geordies and Cockneys. One of my favorites is “Cheeseheads” for people from Wisconsin and, more specifically, for fans of the state’s NFL team, the Green Bay Packers. (Wisconsin produces a lot of cheese.) People from Oklahoma are referred to as Okies and Sooners (official explanation here), residents of New Orleans are called “Yats” (from the phrase “Where y’at?”) and people living in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are often referred to as Yoopers (U.P = Upper Peninsula). There are obviously many more such nicknames, some known on a national level and some only locally. In Chicago, suburbanites are often called 708’ers because of their area code. (Not surprisingly, North Shore residents aren’t called 847’ers; it just doesn’t have the same ring.)

In most cases, regional nicknames aren’t derogatory although calling a resident of Massachusetts a Masshole is probably pushing your luck and redneck is just asking for trouble, as only rednecks get to call themselves rednecks!

What’s the nickname for the state you live in?

See More:

A British Expat’s Guide to Living in Indiana
A Brit’s Guide to Understanding American High School Customs
Five Clues That You’re Becoming Americanized, Brits
Eight Stupid Mistakes Brits Make in the U.S.

Toni Hargis

Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.

See more posts by Toni Hargis
  • Martha Turner

    The two-digit code used for mail is code, not abbreviations. Some are the same as abbreviations, like NC, SC, NY, NJ, NM, but others are different, like TN for Tennessee, Alabama and Arizona. The abbreviations are and Tenn., Ala. and Ariz. The confusing one is CA for California, or Calif. It’s also the code for Canada. Dumb mistake.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Sharing the knowledge.

  • Martha Turner

    And Charlotte, NC, is known as the Queen City, because it’s named for King George III’s wife.

  • http://americaletter.blogspot.com/ Mark Smith

    VA = Old Dominion / Mother of Presidents (which I didn’t know). We’re also one of the few states whose official title of “Commonwealth of…”, not “State of…”.

  • http://americaletter.blogspot.com/ Mark Smith

    I’ve taken to other geographical terms as well. For example, NY NJ CT, where I have family, is known as the “Tri-state area”.

    Then my current home of northern Virginia calls itself NoVA, and the collective of DC, MD & VA is often referred to as “The DMV” (despite the fact that that also stands for “Department of Motor Vehicles” in VA.

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      You’d think there’d be more “Tri-State” places since there are many intersections of states.

      • http://americaletter.blogspot.com/ Mark Smith

        I think there are some others. It seems to be prompted by having a major population centre like NYC at the intersection between three states, so people really do cross between just in the course of everyday life. That’s certainly how it is here in DC, but we don’t use the Tri-state name.

        • Brittany

          I’m from the Philadelphia area, and we refer to the area were New Jersery, Pennsylvania, and Delaware come together as the Tri-State Area.

          • Alexandra Weitershausen

            And at the other end of Pennsylvania: PA, Ohio, and West Virginia are the tri-state area.

          • Brittany

            I never knew that. :o

          • Alexandra Weitershausen

            I suspect pretty much any meeting of three states is locally referred to as the tri-state area. Like the meeting of four states is called “Four Corners” in several different places.

          • Brittany

            Makes sense

          • Cyn2

            There’s only 1 place in the US where 4 states meet at a single point. Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado meet at Four Corners.

          • Alexandra Weitershausen

            The More You Know!

  • CO2VA

    I live in Colorado. Our state slogan is: “Rocky Mountain High, even higher since we legalized marijuana”

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      I take it that’s just medical, otherwise I’m not bringing my teens at Xmas! LOL

      • CO2VA

        Well you should be ok, it doesn’t become legal until Jan 1

  • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

    I think we get the prize for the most uninspired area – Chicagoland. Zzzzzz.

  • http://nomadmomdiary.com/ Lynn Morrison

    I’m from Mississippi (or M-I-crooked letter, crooked letter -I-crooked letter, crooked letter -I- hump back, hump back -I as it is also known)…and we often refer to the South as Dixieland. Terrible reference to our past, but true nonetheless.

  • Brittany

    Pennsylvania – PA – the Keystone State. Philadelphia (where I’m from) is referred to as Philly. And then there’s the Steel City (Pittsburgh). And Dutch Country in Lancaster County.

    No, no rednecks and hillbillies are just that. :)

    • MCPa

      Only natives get to say “Philly.” I don’t, and I’ve lived here nearly 20 years….

      • Brittany

        Well, I’m from the Philadelphia area. :)

      • Pickwick2

        I grew up in the greater Philadelphia area. Within 30 miles of Billy Penn’s hat, you can claim to be a Philly chick, especially of you get wooder from the crick.

    • Alexandra Weitershausen

      People who live in and around Pittsburgh will often call it “the ‘burgh”.

  • JustMe

    I love that Vermonters call everyone else “flatlanders” and Mainers say that everyone who isn’t from there is “from away”. Also, “Yoopers” call everyone else in Michigan “trolls” because they live “below” (as in south of) the bridge. Lastly, Manhattanites call everyone else from outside Manhattan “B&Ts” as in Bridge and Tunnel people as that is how they got there.

    • MontanaRed

      People living in the Rocky Mountain West also sometimes call those from everywhere east of themselves “flatlanders,” especially if said flatlanders are having difficulties with altitude changes. I live in Big Sky Country, but I’ve also lived in (omitting a few already mentioned by others) the Sunshine State, the Twin Cities and the Birthplace of Minnesota in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, and the Hawkeye State. My southern relatives have often referred to me as a Yankee (anybody from north of the Mason-Dixon Line), though I think of myself as a Midwesterner, not having lived in New England and despite having been born MUCH farther south than any of them. Big country, the USA, and lots and lots of regional distinctions.

  • Laguna Hiker

    Chicago suburbanites = burbistas

    • http://expatmum.blogspot.com/ Expat Mum

      Oooh, never heard that one. (Been here 22 years so possibly still a newbie…LOL).

    • frozen01

      I’ve lived in the Chicago suburbs for 10 years and haven’t heard any of these nicknames. I’ve always just been called a suburbanite, or ‘burbanite.

  • Karen Frenchy

    Houston, TX = Bayou City (about 15 natural streams with “Bayou” in their names flow through the surrounding area: Buffalo Bayou, White Oak bayou etc.) & H-Town ;)

    • dp

      Also Space City, because we have Mission Control and everyone else doesn’t. Tuscaloosa, Al (where I’m currently away for university) is called T-Town or the Druid City, after the oak trees that used to line the streets downtown.

  • Elemen

    Don’t click on the Sooners link, they’ve avoided what a Sooner really is (it’s written by the University — who’s mascot is a Sooner). A Sooner is a person who snuck in early and got the best land because they went in “sooner” than they were supposed to. It’s written the way they want it, in order to avoid the ugly truth. –by an Okie from Muskogee.

    • evil_genius_42

      Yep, though, you’ve got to give them a bit of credit for sort of briefly touching on it. While it is true that some of the original “Sooners” were Feds and such (no, they did not have legal cause to stake a claim before anyone else) there were a lot of regular citizens who snuck in to stake their claim. So, unless you’re referring to the University teams or fans thereof, basically a “Sooner” is a cheater.

  • David Gorski

    Detroit is also called “the D,” at least by those of us who live here. I’m not sure how much the rest of the country would recognize that nickname.

    • timmmahhhh

      If i heard The D, I would confuse it with The Big D, nickname for Dallas before reading your post.

  • littlebirdhouse92

    A person from Connecticut can be called a “nutmegger”. My favorite is “Tar Heel” for a North Carolinian.

  • James Barnwell

    Good article! Now, can we return” great lake state”, to our license plate?

  • SavvyJo

    I live in NE, OH and I commonly say “PA” meaning Pennsylvania, because I can, and people from Western OH usually don’t understand where I’m referring to.

  • timmmahhhh

    I grew up in Indiana where we are calle ourselves Hoosiers, which nobody knows for sure the derivation but there are about six stories of how. If someone ever refers to us as Indianans we definitely know you are not a Hoosier. I live in the Chicago ares area now and have not heard anyone call suburbanites 708ers. I live in the suburbs though, referred to as “the burbs”, the title of a Tom Hanks movie I have yet to see. We are also known for a working class accent celebrated in the Saturday night Live Super fans routine (daaaa Bearsss!) which like Cockney is not regional but more used by the working class, specifically industrial workers like steel mill workers and food packing workers and lower middle class people.

    • http://www.ghookermls.info/ Geoffrey Hooker

      But in St Louis (Missouri), hoosier is a generic fighting-words level insult for a redneck.

  • vonnnegut

    i am from LA and i have never heard anyone refer to it as ‘the big orange’

  • evil_genius_42

    Actually, the term “Okie” was generally considered derogatory, as it was used to refer to people fleeing the state during The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl. People of other states resented the intrusion and loss of much-needed jobs. Okie isn’t used much anymore, unless you are one. And I’d be careful about calling someone a “Sooner” as you might get a “Cowboy” fan and then you’ve probably got yourself an argument. And you NEVER call anyone not from a state that was part of the original colonies a “Yankee”, you never know if you’re speaking to someone who would find that the ultimate insult (usually I think it’s funny, but there are a lot of people who wouldn’t).
    By the way, I’ve grew up in Oklahoma, for some odd reason they made me learn this stuff.

    • Shea

      I don’t think anybody wants to be called a “Yankee” unless they’re a Yankees fan. Trust me.

      • evil_genius_42

        Good point.

        • Buzz Mooney

          Even limiting it to the original thirteen colonies isn’t sufficient: you’ll get a less-than-positive response if you aim that word at anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line. (northern boundary of Maryland). Best to limit it to New Englanders. ;-)

          • frozen01

            THIS. I’m not precisely of the Confederate flag-waving crowd by any stretch of the imagination, and I live well north of the line now, but I was born and raised in the South and anyone who dares call me a Yank gets an earful ;)

  • Pickwick2

    MInnesota is the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” inhabited by gophers, the majority of whom live in the “Twin Cities” of Minneapolis and St. Paul.

    Wisconsin’s unofficial motto is “Come Enjoy Our Dairy Air”. They are badgers. (I won’t mention the cheesehead thing.)

  • Ernest Thomas

    Philadelphia is the “City of Brotherly Love”

  • Buzz Mooney

    Maryland is known as the Old Line State, because Maryland troops held a wavering line against superior British forces at the Battle of Brooklyn Heights during the Revolution, allowing the rest of the army to retreat safely across the river to New Jersey. We’re also The Free State, because of our initial refusal to enforce the Prohibition on liquor, back in the 20s. Our third nickname is “the Land of Pleasant Living”, but that always sounded like a promotional slogan, to me. Our largest city is Baltimore, or “Charm City”, and our state song is a seccessionist anthem , “Maryland, My Maryland”, set to the tune of “Oh, Tannenbaum”. We tend to pronounce the name of our state kinda like “Marilyn”.

    • Irené Colthurst

      I thought “Old Line State” was a reference to the Mason-Dixon Line. The more you know ;).

  • Irené Colthurst

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but Californians don’t really have a state nickname for themselves. We’re the “Golden State”, but no one calls Californians “Goldies” or anything.

  • Don Cole

    A little late, but a few more:

    In Illinois, “Downstate” means anything not Chicago.

    People from Indiana are “Hoosiers,” not “Indianans.”

    The area in Kentucky between Interstate 65 and the Appalachian mountains is called the “Bluegrass.” Named for the bluish flowers that the native grass would have after growing all summer. Strangely enough, most of the grass around here is fescue anymore.

  • Oracle

    I feel so alone! I guess I’m the only person who was born in the Sunshine State, and I’m a cracker!

  • Hunter

    Michigan is also known as “The Mitten” because the lower peninsula is shaped like a mitten. We also point to areas on our hands to show you where we’re from.

  • Darrell Grob

    “Hoosier” – in Indiana, someone from Indiana – not derogatory. In Missouri (especially St Louis) a hoosier is any dumb bumpkin, whether from the city or country.