Do you pronounce "pin" and "pen" the same?

If you pronounce pin and pen the same you are almost certainly from the south... or Bakersfield, CA. So many people seemed interested in yesterday's discussion of the Dawn/Don merger, that I thought it might be fun to look at another mappable pronunciation curiousity: pin/pen. Most Americans say these words differently. But in the south, they sound the exactly same. I noticed this phenomenon when visiting Pensacola, Florida—to my ear, people there count seven, eight, nine, tin. Yeah tin, like tin can.  What's cool to me is how precisely this can be mapped. Indianapolis merges pin/pen but Cincinnati does not. Nearly all the south merges, but Savannah, Georgia does not. Mobile-yes. New Orleans-no.  So for fun in the office, ask your friends to pronounce the objects below. Their answer will tell you where they grew up.

Say "Don." Say "Dawn." Now I know where you live.

How we pronounce words can predict where we live—very precisely. Some of our pronunciation differences are fairly obvious, but most are not. Say, for example, the female name "Dawn" and the male name "Don." Being from Wisconsin, I pronounce these two names very differently. My wife, from Idaho, pronounces them exactly the same. Whether you pronounce Don/Dawn the same or differently depends largely on where you grew up on the map. (See above).

There are people who spend a career studying this stuff, which all seems very fascinating to me. The Dawn-Don difference comes from that the fact that certain Americans have 13 vowels... others lost one--they only have 12! So they use the same vowel for Don and Dawn. (same thing with "cot" and "caught.") There is a most-curious map that covers all this--made by a guy named Rick Aschmann. Rick's an incredibly impressive researcher.... but his map... well, it's hopelessly complex. Rick, you don't have to put everything you ever learned on one map! You can make 2 or 3... or 100.  I took just one line from Rick's map—Cot/Caught—and mapped it (above). Hopefully it's a bit clearer.  Rick's site also has nifty audio of people pronouncing these words. And NPR did a fun story about this recently here.

The ultimate royal wedding: USA and UK

With so many Americans interested in the upcoming royal wedding, maybe it's time to re-propose another kind of marriage—the U.K. joining the U.S. Sure it sounds preposterous, but in 1947, at least one very powerful U.S. Senator was working hard to make this happen. His name was Richard Russell, Jr. of Georgia--and his plan was to add England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales as four new states. He may have been the only person on earth who thought this was a good idea. Normally, this kind of thing would be laughed off as the idea of a crackpot, but because it was proposed by a U.S. Senator, the media dutifully reported the plan.

Press reports from 1947 said the British received the idea “coldly.” How coldly? Think absolute zero. If you skipped high school chemistry, absolute zero is the coldest temperature known to exist. In theory, nothing in the universe can actually reach absolute zero—but I think maybe the British did in 1947.
Of course, they didn’t just launch into a tirade of expletives, because the British are much too sophisticated for such a coarse response. So rather than condemn Senator Russell, the plucky Brits simply pointed out that Georgia still owed money borrowed from the British during the Civil War. It was the perfect retort. Russell had assumed that America had the upper hand, because the United States had just bailed out Britain in WWII. He had forgotten that England had spent more that $200 million to help the South in the war between the states—money that was never repaid. Hmmm. Maybe this whole thing was backwards—perhaps Georgia should be added to the United Kingdom. All the 1947 shenanigans are detailed (with a nice map too) in Lost States. 

Maybe it's time to resurrect this idea. If they were Americans, Prince William and Miss Catherine Middleton might move to California or New York... or Cleveland—which is something Americans would fancy. Oh, wait... we'd also get Charles and Camilla. Nevermind. Forget the whole thing.

New movie: man wouldn't ask for directions, people died

The next time your husband gets lost and won't ask for directions, don't be too hard on him. At least you aren't likely to die as a result. That's kind of the premise of a new movie based on a true story--one of the saddest tales of the Old West. In 1845, mountain man Stephen Meek convinced a westward-bound wagon train that he had discovered a nifty new shortcut to Oregon. They believed him
and followed Meek into the uncharted Oregon desert.  Then Stephen Meek got hopelessly lost. Soon people began dying. Needless to say, the survivors were not too happy with him. It's a fascinating story, and the new movie based on this event is in theaters now. I was surprised that none of the movie PR included a map of the cutoff... so I made one (above)--overlaying Meek's route on the Park Service map. (You can zoom in on the map). For the full story of the Meek disaster, you can read more here.

NFL creates dumbest maps ever

Please help me understand the point of a series of bizarre maps on the NFL web site. Hey, I'll find any excuse to like a map, but does anyone really need to see the weekly travel of each team? Look at the example above. Does that tell you anything useful? OK, I guess the map shows that, say, the Green Bay Packers are traveling to Kansas City... or is it Denver? I'm a map geek and I can't tell! Besides, wouldn't it be more useful to just type up, "Green Bay at Denver"?  (Or is it Denver at Green Bay? I can't tell from this stupid map.) Wait, wait, I think I figured it out! If you squint just right at all the crosshatchy red lines, you will see the Chinese symbol that translates roughly, "season cancelled suckers." Feel free to investigate this series of pointless maps here.

Where did they get the lions?

Easter weekend is the perfect time to ask this question: Knowing they'd get likely eaten by lions, why didn't the early Christians abandon their religion... or at least hide from the Romans? After all, before Easter, Peter denied he even knew Jesus—so that he could avoid any trouble. You'd think that the prospect of getting your flesh ripped from your body by a hungry lion would be enough to get you to follow a more Roman-friendly god. And by their own admission, on Easter morning, the followers of Jesus were a bunch of scaredy-cats, hiding in a locked room. Next thing you know, they're willing lion-food. What gives?

They saw a dead guy come back to life. That'll pretty much do it. (A film I made details how this all went down. Here is a preview... and here's where you can view the whole thing online.)  But for this blog, I thought it worthy to ask a geography-related question: Where did the Romans get all those lions?! They certainly can’t be found in the Italian countryside. And the Romans needed a lot of lions. As many as 600 would be released at a single event. The Roman bloodlust wasn’t satisfied by lions alone; they also imported tigers, hippos, giraffes and rhinos. To get a reliable supply these exotic species, the Romans needed a trade route to central Africa—and that meant they had to find a way to get these animals across the Sahara Desert. For the rest of this surprising story—and a much bigger and better map, go here.

Morgan Spurlock should look at a New Mexico map

Supersize Me filmmaker Morgan Spurlock is making news because he persuaded Altoona, Pennsylvania to change it's name. His new film is about product placement, so he figured it would be a hoot to get a city to rename itself after the the title of his new film. But I'm here to tell you Spurlock's gimmick is pretty lame. And it's been done... better. Here's why: Altoona is only changing it's name for 60 days. And it's not really changing its name. The city's police cars aren't being repainted with a new city name. And the Post Office isn't going to start stamping "return to sender" on mail addressed to Altoona. It's really not doing anything except sending out a press release.

To see how this is really done, Mr. Spurlock should read up in the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico. In 1950, residents of Hot Springs, were encouraged by a successful businessman to permanently rename their city after his product. The businessman was Ralph Edwards (photo above), and his product was the Truth or Consequences television show. The residents overwhelming approved this genius marketing scheme—and the city remains Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, to this very day. Check your map. You can read more about Spurlock's copycat scheme here. And for more about Ralph Edwards strategy, well.... it's detailed in Lost States.  (And note how cleverly I avoided actually mentioning the name of Spurlock's new film "POM Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold." Doh!)

Divide Libya - and return to the borders of antiquity

Should Libya be partitioned into two (or three?) separate nations to solve the conflict there? Many major players in the conflict are suggesting just that. It's an idea that makes sense; in fact, what is now Libya is an artificial creation of the 20th century—a Frankenation that never should have been created in the first place.
The east and west (Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) have always been divided by geography—the Gulf of Sirte separates the population centers of Tripoli in the west and Benghazi in the east. And the unique desert community of Fezzan has operated separately for thousands of years.
It was only the Europeans who thought these regions should be cobbled together into one. Blame the Italians, mostly. They colonized the region back when that was the thing to do. But they knew better than to pretend this was one unified people. In fact, it's really interesting to look at this big 1829 map of north Africa. Created by the French (also colonizers of north Africa) you can see that Europeans 200 years ago understood this was three nations, not one. (Really, it's a cool map)

The age-old bear puzzle

One morning I went for a walk. Starting at point x, I walked 1 mile due south to point A. Then I walked one mile due west to point B. Then I walked one mile due north and I found I had returned to where I started. Then I saw a bear walk by. What color was the bear?
There is only one place on earth where you can do this AND potentially see a bear. This really confused me as a 6th grader... it's a fun geography puzzle for the middle school crowd. Answer after the break.

Fond du Lac, Rachel Maddow, and Appleton

I spent yesterday giving a talk at the fun Fox Cities Book Festival. One of the cities of Wisconsin's Fox Valley is Fond du Lac... recently in the national spotlight because MSNBC host Rachel Maddow just cannot figure out how to pronounce this city. The MSNBC personality messed up "Fond du Lac" recently, and went on the air to correct it. Alas, her correction needs correcting--because she mis-pronounced it again! In her correction she's calls it "fohn-du-LACK" emphasizing the last syllable. I had the fine locals of nearby Appleton say it in unison yesterday, and I can tell you they did not say fohn-du-LACK. They said FOHN-du-lack with the first syllable getting the slightest preference. And if you want to get all the vowel sounds right, say "John do crack" and you pretty much have it.  Even though I'm no fan of Ms. Maddow, I'll link to her whole mea culpa here. (Oh, and in case you are wondering, "Appleton" is pronounced just the way you'd expect.)

85 mph now legal in Texas

West Texas is so flat and featureless, you can kind of see why the state legislature voted to raise the speed limit to 85mph (It's already 80 mph--did you know that?). That's the funny thing about geography... the speed of travel is inversely proportional to the number of people living in the area. New York is dense, so travel there is snail-like. Outer space has very few humanoids, so we travel there at roughly 15,000 mph. Since West Texas also has few humanoids, locals think it's just fine to go really fast there, too. And yes, it makes sense to go 85—if the driver is above texting age, and below corrective-vision age. So there's like a 2 year window.
And when the speed limit is 85, will they pull you over at 90? Probably not, it's Texas... where fast driving is a birthright. Not sure if that tradition dates back to Sam Houston, though. He was lucky to make 85 miles a week. (Update 9/1/2011: Today, 85 mph becomes the state's maximim legal speed, although there are not yet any stretches of highway approved for the new limit. Speeders, be patient.)

This is why we need more geography teachers...

I don't know were to begin with this stupefying exchange from Yahoo Answers. I didn't make this up. This is real.  "Nick" asked: Why isn't Alaska count(ed) as the 51st state? Let me stop right here. A lot of teachers will say "There really are no stupid questions." But I'm here to tell you: THAT is a stupid question! If Nick is old enough to spell "Alaska," he should know it's a state... and that the US has 50 of 'em. And if somehow he slept through social studies class every day of elementary school, then he should at least have the self-respect to look this up himself. Does Nick really have to involve other people in his quest for getting an answer to this question? What next from Nick? How come there has never been an African-American president? How many wheels does a bicycle have? or How do you spell "Nick"? Sigh. At least Nick is polite; I guess that counts for something. But he demonstrates the need for more geography in our schools.

The forgotten Union state in the Confederate south

With the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War this week—and the premiere of a new Lincoln movie The Conspirator, it makes sense to revisit one of the important untold stories of the war between the states—namely that many southerners did not want to secede from the Union. Slavery benefited wealthy plantation owners, not the poor dirt farmers of the Appalachians. Many of these hill people resented being dragged into what they considered "a rich man’s war." This sentiment led to a movement to create a pro-Union (or at least neutral) state in the south, named Nickajack. It's it's discussed in my book Lost States.  Read on for more about the lost state of Nickajack.

A county in Idaho named for three lost Hawaiians

Why in the world would there be a county in Idaho named in honor of three lost Hawaiians? It's true. And the story is rather unexpected. Once Captain Cook set foot on Hawaii, it became clear to Europeans that the people of Hawaii were excellent mariners and hard workers. So Cook and others hired Hawaiians to work on board ships of the era. In the early 1800s, many of these vessels visited the coast of what is now Oregon and Washington. Many Hawaiians went ashore and got hired as trappers... since there was good money to be made in beaver pelts. In 1819, three of these Hawaiians were sent into an uncharted region in what is now southwest Idaho. They were never seen again. Over time, the region was named for these lost trappers. Wait a minute, you're thinking.... there is no Hawaii county on the Idaho map! That's because spelling wasn't standardized back then. They just spelled names the way they sounded... and so it came out "Owyhee." Say "Hawaii" out loud. Then say "Owyhee" out loud. Ah, get it now?! So my map above uses the modern spelling, but make no mistake, the county in Idaho is named for a Hawaiian mystery.

The birthers of 1881

After 100 years of obscurity, President Chester Arthur is back in the news—and you need a map to really get this story. Arthur was the center of America's first "birther" controversy in 1881... when opponents claimed he had been born in foreign nation (Canada). Arthur said he was born in Fairfield, Vermont, just 11 miles or so from the Canadian border. But he could provide no proof that his mother didn't jog over to Canada while in labor.... give birth... and then carry the newborn Chester back to Fairfield. The Donald Trumps of that era (the guy's actual name was Arthur P. Hinman) pitched a variety of theories claiming Arthur was not a "natural-born" citizen.  Hinman even wrote a book (You can actually read the whole thing here). None of this is really news—in fact, the prospect of a president born outside US borders was treated mostly with yawns in the 1880s. The more interesting question is whether the laws signed by a non natural-born president would have to be voided? A lot of modern-day birthers think they would. If that's true, then we might have to overturn the Edmunds Act, signed by president Chester Arthur. The Act prevents bigamists and polygamists from voting. Good grief, imagine roving bands of polygamists casting ballots willy-nilly!  Then there's the international time agreement Arthur instigated. Overturn that one, and all our clocks will be wrong! It goes on and on. My solution to the chaos is this: a new amendment that says that as long as you are born in a country that ends in the letter "A" you can become president. That solves Chester Arthur's problem... and Barack Obama's. (Then again, my amendment adds about 2 billion people to the list of who could be come president. Check a world map and you'll see what I mean)

Map of the government shutdown

So if a government shuts down, what does that mean? A real "shutdown" would mean a new map of North America, wouldn't it? So the thing everyone's talking about is a far cry from a real shutdown. It's not even a "partial shutdown." Not really. Are they closing the Interstates? Opening the border crossings? Turning off password protection at the CIA? (By the way, I hear their secret password is "password."). Since the whole thing seems rather silly to me, I thought it deserved a silly map.

51st state needs a name. Got any ideas?

There is growing movement in southern Arizona to create the 51st state, but they have a problem: they can't come up with a good name. In a recent poll, "Baja Arizona" was the top choice, but that has all kinds of problems. First, it has too many syllables--six! California, by comparison, has four (Five if you count Schwarzenegger's pronunciation). Many fear the name "Baja Arizona" might imply the residents want to rejoin Mexico (which they decidedly don't). Second in the poll is "Gadsden"after the guy who bought the land (Gadsden Purchase). But America has a semi-official policy not to name states after people. It would be hard to imagine the U.S. having a state named after James Gadsden, but no state named after Lincoln or Jefferson! Third choice "South Arizona" follows the more common pattern (think West Virginia, or South Dakota). But I think supporters are forgetting a much better idea. Name the new state "Arizona"and rename the rest of the state "North Arizona." What do you think... Got any better ideas for a name?

Trump: Iraq should be the 51st state

Critics of the war like to call Iraq the "51st State"as a way of pointing out the amount of money and manpower that's been poured into that nation. I once ran the numbers, and we could have spent less in Iraq by just skipping the invasion--and offering each citizen $100,000. Yeah we save money by just buying the country outright. Family of five, you get a half-million in US dollars... sign right here. I think most Iraqis would go for that one. Of course, I wasn't really serious about making Iraq the 51st state, but apparently Donald Trump is.
He says we should "stay" in that nation since we are the "conquerors." When we did that in other places, we eventually made that conquered territory into US states. It seems pretty clear that's what Trump wants to do. Normally, I wouldn't even mention this kind of bizarre rant...  but the guy is running for president... so... Anyway, you can watch Trump actually say this stuff all serious-like in the clip above.

DC Statehood = an end to civilization?

Well, that's not exactly what the National Review wrote, but it's close. According to Julia Shaw, making the District of Columbia the 51st state would, "...undermine the entire structure of our government." Yikes, that sounds scary! Her point is that you don't want the White House, the Capitol or other major federal buildings sitting on the soil of some state.... a state that might get its way by turning off the electricity to Oval Office. Sure, we get that. But a whole lot of DC isn't quite so central to the smooth running of the most powerful nation on earth. Take for example, the Subway Sandwich shop at 1165 7th Street Northwest in DC. If that dispensary of tasty lunches was suddenly in the 51st state of New Columbia—or maybe in a part of Maryland—would that really  "...undermine the entire structure of our government."?? And let's be honest, most of DC is filled with the same fast food restaurants, bland apartments, and soulless office suites that populate the rest of America.

Arlington, Virginia was once a part of the District of Columbia... until everyone realized it would not "undermine the entire structure of our government" if that portion of the district became a portion of an actual state. There are good reasons for DC to become a state, and some good reasons for it not to become a state (like minimal land). But "undermining the entire structure of our government" is a bit overwrought.  You could carve out a slimmed down district around the mall, and let the rest of DC—the parts where people actually live, get the equality it deserves, by statehood or "retrocession" to Maryland. The world will not end if that happens. I hope!

Rep. Tom Marino's map mess—& we break his next scandal!

US Rep. Tom Marino took a lot of heat last week when it appeared he didn't know Libya was in Africa. But was this really a major gaffe? Or just a misunderstanding? Our crack staff dug a bit deeper into the geographic goof of the week. First the backstory: Marino was discussing America's role in Libya when he was quoted as saying, "Is the mission to take Gadhafi out? Where does it stop? Do we go into Africa next?"  Marino claims that since US ground troops are not in Africa now, he was just wondering if that was the president's plan. However, many snarky pundits interpreted his quote as meaning he didn't know Libya is in Africa. But could a US Congressman really make an error of that magnitude? To answer that question, we poked around Marino's web site... and found surprising evidence. In fact, the photo above—if you know what to look for—seals it.  Read on for all the shocking details...

Puerto Rican statehood - and a bizarro interviewer

Puerto Rico's secretary of commerce José R. Pérez-Riera was interviewed by Jim Varney on Fox News about the possibility of becoming the 51st state. Pérez-Riera was reasonable in asserting that Puerto Ricans just want the same rights as other American citizens. Whether you agree with statehood or not, it is an argument worthy of consideration. But all Varney could say is: "you want money... all you want is money." Apparently Varney only had three words on his briefing notes, because he was like a weird robot who kept saying, "You just want money, admit it." Then Varney suggested Puerto Rico get statehood on a level lower than the other 50. What Varney misunderstands is basic US history. (Given his British accent, and bizarre concept of statehood, I'm guessing he never had an American history class.) So here is the skinny.... story continues....

KAY-row, trih-POLE-ee & more

Just finished new additions to our "cities not pronounced like their namesake" list. Keep your contributions coming.... Map here. Offer your examples here. (and you can use the linky icony thing below to bring your friends in on the conversation)

Curious pronunciations - now mapped

Here's a map of places pronounced funny. OK, "funny" is a relative term. Yesterday, lots of you made contributions to my list of places in America that are pronounced differently than their namesakes—and I thought your contributions deserved a map. You can view them here. This is a work in progress. I will add additional cities as you send them in!