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Curious, Bizarre & Storied State Symbols

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Almost everyone knows that each state of the Union has its own flag. State flags, however, are just the most visible elements of an elaborate, esoteric system of legalized symbols that characterize and codify our united states. For example, "Do You Realize??" by the Flaming Lips was just named the official Oklahoma State Rock Song. It's time we were all exposed to the bizarre symbology of state identity-politics.

A Lesser-Known Tale of Badgers and Suckers

To begin with, some of the most well-known state symbols allude to lesser-known meanings and histories. I grew up in Wisconsin and only recently learned that the Badger State title originally refers not to Bucky, nor to the savage beast itself, but to lead miners in the 1820s and 30s. These miners moved from prospect to prospect in southwestern Wisconsin, traveling light and often, with little money for luxury. When winter came and conditions worsened, those miners too far from home to migrate would dig themselves sheltering caves in the hills -- like badgers. These temporary dwellings could be abandoned if a prospect proved fruitless, without much regret; and if the lead pickings were good, the lucky miner could fluff up his badger hole or upgrade to a more traditional Euro-American residence. For this practice Wisconsin miners were dubbed "badgers" -- a jibe that was soon appropriated as a proud, statewide nickname. Bucky didn't come along until 1949; the furry, quadruped badger, notoriously vicious when cornered, wasn't declared Wisconsin's state animal until 1957.

Other miners migrated south for the winter to the far end of Illinois, much like the region's sucker fish; which earned them the nickname of Suckers, and their state of Illinois its unenviable nickname, The Sucker State.

The Rebel Woodpecker

alabama-bird.jpgThe state bird of Alabama has another tale behind it. They honor a little woodpecker they call the yellowhammer, which is known outside of Alabama as the northern flicker, the common flicker, or simply The Flicker. (It eats a lot of ants, and is not to be confused with the yellowhammer bunting of Europe and New Zealand.) State birds are chosen for reasons many and varied, some meaningful and others frivolous -- from the pretty songs they sing to their proximity to extinction -- and I believe this is the only bird singled out for its resemblance to Confederate uniforms. The story goes that a clean, trim, flashy bunch of new Confederate recruits one day passed by a weary, bedraggled, dusty pod of veterans, and their fresh uniforms, grey tinged with brilliant yellow, reminded some jokester vet of the woodpecker, so he let out a mocking call: "Yallerhammer, yallerhammer, flicker, flicker!" The jeer stuck, and the recruits were soon labeled the Yellowhammer Company. Later, as these things go, all Alabama troops were known as Yellowhammers, the whole state as the Yellowhammer State, and Confederate veterans developed a habit of wearing yellow feathers in their caps and lapels to dress up for post-war reunions.

How entertaining and informative. But the real fun starts when these state symbols more shamelessly approach the ridiculous. Let us consider some of the finest specimens:

Eat and Drink to the Honor of the State

Kool-Aid.jpgMost states have at least one form of official food. In Louisiana, the official doughnut is the beignet. (I'm unaware of any other state doughnuts -- and I'm disappointed.) New York's official muffin is made with apples; Minnesota's with blueberries; and none have yet found it fit to honor the vegan bran and raisin muffin, despite whatever strange wonders it works on the abdominal tubing. Vermont is the only state with an official flavor: maple, as in maple syrup -- but because they've designated the "flavor," not the "syrup," we can assume the appointment includes everything from maple-glaze for ham to autumnal maple lattes. Shockingly, Oklahoma has recognized a complete (and daunting) meal: fried okra, squash, cornbread, barbeque pork, biscuits, sausage and gravy, grits, corn, chicken friend steak, black-eyed peas, strawberries, and pecan pies. As for state drinks, Nebraska has Kool-Aid, Indiana has water (hubris!), and Alabama, the standout, has Conecuh Ridge Alabama Fine Whiskey -- a re-creation of some well-regarded illegal moonshine made in the backwoods by a man named Clyde May.

The Silly, Sentimental, and Insulting Songs that Define Us

hang-on-sloopy.jpgAll states have songs, too, except New Jersey, where good cheer goes to die. Most states have more than one. There are state ballads, state marches, state waltzes, and so on. Connecticut has a state cantata (a narrative piece intermixed with solos and choruses); Louisiana has a state environmental song ("The Gifts of the Earth"); Massachusetts a polka ("Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts"); a couple states have lullabies; and Ohio has an official rock song, "Hang On Sloopy." Two state anthems, Maryland's and Iowa's, are set to the familiar tune of "O Tannenbaum!", or "O Christmas Tree!"; but no states have designated official Christmas songs. And despite Texas' toughboy image (their official footwear is the cowboy boot), it's the only state with an official flower song -- in praise of its state flower, the bluebonnet. Many of the traditional states songs are brazenly effusive. Arizona's begins, "I love you, Arizona," and continues, rather romantically, "You're the magic in me." California's is similar, without the magic: "I love you, California, you're the greatest state of all." South Dakotans use the superlative when singing to "The state we love the best."

Usually they're just hilarious, but a few of these songs bear some heinously outdated lyrics. With a nod to the old Eternal Feminine, North Carolina praises its women as Queens of the Forest, "So graceful, so constant, yet to gentlest breath trembling." The real trouble comes, though, with old minstrel tunes that portray humble "darkies" praising "old Massa" in song and romanticizing their cotton-picking servitude. Kentucky changed the language for "My Old Kentucky Home" in 1986 to glaze over such indiscretions. But Virginia still seems to have trouble acknowledging its error, and simply demoted its song, "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny," to the status of "state song emeritus." Virginia still seeks an adequate replacement, preferably one that doesn't idealize slavery -- but, of course, those are hard to come by.

Every State For Itself

gusty.jpgBesides these strange variations on common themes, many states have even more idiosyncratic symbols. Since 1962, the official sport of Maryland has been jousting, and more recently, the state's official "exercise" was declared to be walking. Not even mall-walking or speed-walking -- just "walking." Kentucky doesn't have a "sport," but it does have an official tug-of-war: the Fordsville Tug-of-War Championship. Mississippi has a state toy, the teddy bear; Massachusetts a state bean, the navy bean; and Oklahoma proudly boasts the only state cartoon character, a gust of wind named Gusty that was used to report weather and news, between 1954 and 1989. (You can order commemorative Gusty artwork here.)

While many designations seem absurd, most aim to represent some definite aspect of a state's intended "character." Legislators want icons that mean something, that give you a sense of the land and its people -- something like the bolo tie. Arizona named the bolo tie its official neckwear back in 1971. And more recently, in 2007, New Mexico added the same to its list of emblems. Apparently, it was an Arizona silversmith who invented the string-and-buckle necktie when he took off his hatband to avoid losing the precious buckle during a high-wind horse ride, and hung it around his neck. This discovery occurred as late as 1940, but the bolo's become such an icon that it's hard to imagine a Wild West without it.

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.


"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.


"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles


"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole


"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles



"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole


"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles


"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit


Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at:

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."


A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.


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