On the graphic and orthographic properties of Saskatchewan

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What it says on the license plates of cars registered in the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan is more or less indistinguishable from many other provincial or state slogans: Land of the Living Skies. The point here seems to be to give you a succinct summary of the geography of the place so that you have some idea of where you are if you find yourself on an ill-advised cross-country road trip involving too much drinking in the off-driving hours. Hence, you get the rather obvious Grand Canyon State (Arizona), The Ocean State (Rhode Island), The Green Mountain State (Vermont) and Explore Canada's Arctic (Northwest Territories). At least Saskatchewan adds a small pinch of poetry.

Enigma is clearly under-valued in these slogans, with the exception of Quebec's Je Me Souviens ("I remember"), whose meaning is elusive to outsiders or residents with shallow historical roots in the province. Though I lived there from 1971 to 1984, I never did figure out what it's supposed to mean, though I suspect that it means something like I remember how to order hamburgers and fries in French, or I remember when the Habs were the greatest hockey team on the planet. Or perhaps it's shorthand for something slightly more sinister, as in I remember how the English bastards smashed us in battle and oppressed us economically, and I promise to counter their linguistic imperialism using all means necessary, including enforcing legal requirements that English appear on Montreal restaurant menus only in microscopic font guaranteed to make anglo eyeballs bug out. Or something to that effect.

But Saskatchewan's unofficial motto, which you'll see imprinted on T-shirts or tourism signs is: Hard to spell. Easy to draw. This is often accompanied by the following image, registered as a trademark by the Government of Saskatchewan:

The linguistic challenges posed by the name Saskatchewan appear to serve as an all-purpose baseline of sorts, the stick against which to measure the relative difficulty of just about anything under the living sky. For example, the Scottish band The Proclaimers proclaimed:

"I can say ‘Saskatchewan' without starting to stutter. But I can't understand why we'd let someone else rule our land, cap in hand."

But while it's easier to infer the politically-spiked intended message of these lyrics (English imperialism again) than it is to either spell or say "Saskatchewan", making sense of that province's informal slogan is quite another matter. It represents a florid flouting of one of the most basic guidelines of communication: that what one says should be relevant to the communicative goal at hand.

Now, as we've known since Grice, even the most flamboyant non-sequiturs typically invite some sensible inference as to what the speaker really meant to communicate—provided that they're being wielded by your average mostly rational speaker who is not simultaneously texting, tweeting, google plussing, writing a blog post, paying his/her bills and ending a three-year relationship over Facebook all while engaging you in conversation.

For example:

Prospective son-in-law: Sir, I've asked your daughter to marry me and she's said yes.
Prospective father-in-law: Have I ever shown you my collection of rifles?

It stands to reason then: if we start with the assumptions that a) the Government of Saskatchewan is populated by mostly rational individuals (and, despite the average daily temperature in January there, I have no real reason to suspect otherwise), and b) that their goal would be to lure as many visitors to Saskatchewan as possible, it should in theory be easy to come up with a reasonable inference about the meaning of the slogan.

So I did a spot of empirical research, polling a non-random sample of 21 friends, colleagues and family members: What is this slogan supposed to mean, and what does it tell you about Saskatchewan?

Six responders spun their inferential wheels, failing to come up with any deeper meaning at all. Some of them simply re-stated the slogan itself more explicitly ("It means that it's hard to spell the word Saskatchewan but that it's easy to draw its shape") and stopped cold there. Others openly admitted defeat: "I got nothing. But then again, I'm just a psychologist."

Only three managed to eke out some favorable inference about Saskatchewan. For example: "We are just regular folks in Saskatchewan. Down to earth, with a sense of humor. We have trouble spelling, just like you. You'll fit in, in Saskatchewan."

But the majority of the respondents (12) reacted quite negatively to the slogan, and felt that it communicated nothing flattering about the province:

"Not the place for high-tech industries or academics. Not useful in attracting jobs to Sask."

"It tells me there's absolutely nothing of interest there."

"Ideal for the illiterate with simple drawing skills."

I'm especially interested in the inferences about Saskatchewaners (Saskatchewanites? Saskatchewanians?) as dull, simple, unsophisticated folk, because my own take on the slogan is that it deploys a strategy that's very similar to the well-known "Dear Ketel One Drinker" ads that appeared for Ketel One vodka between 2003 and 2009—ads that had a reputation as being edgy and urban. The ads had no pictures, and consisted entirely of supreme irrelevancies such as: "Dear Ketel One drinker: This is an advertisement for the aforementioned product. Sorry." Or: "Dear Ketel One drinker: Can we just say you looked great the other night."

If these ads nonplussed you, you might be interested to know that in media studies circles, the Ketel One ads are often described as examples of postmodernism in advertising. The idea is that the ad engages the viewer at a metalevel and presents itself as a kind of anti-ad—as a sideways comment on the conventions that are typically used by advertisers (accomplished in part through violation of these conventions), and a nod to the viewer who is surely too sophisticated to be taken in by such tactics. Not all resonated with the approach (though it was apparently a commercial success), even if they did get what the intended effect was. For example, David Segal wrote for the Washington Post:

"Ketel One comes across like a slightly smug, irony-loving post-grad who's read just enough Derrida to be dangerous and wants to hit you up for cash—but won't come right out and say so. Instead, he starts spewing non sequiturs in the hopes that you'll be intrigued enough to hand him a fiver."

But no one seems to be accusing Saskatchewan of behaving like a Derrida-reading, irony-loving post-grad. And only one of my respondents read the provincial unofficial motto as anything like an anti-motto:

"If this is a tongue-in-cheek 'motto' (with the goal of in part making fun of the notion of having mottos), then it's cutely self-deprecating."

I can't say for sure what the creators of the motto did have in mind. But I do know that, contrary to stereotype, Saskatchewan likely has at least its fair share of Derrida-reading students. More than a quarter of its residents live in Saskatoon, which has in recent years undergone a burst of urban growth and become a haven for artists. Another quarter or so live in Regina, its capital city. The local aesthetic is high on irony, and residents are particularly fond of playing around with common stereotypes associated with the province—which I suspect is the central agenda of the enigmatic motto.

But such meta-inferences seem hard to access, judging by the handful of responses I solicited. The Ketel One ads presumably worked because the company was operating from its core identity as an underground brand. But Saskatchewan—for all its newfound hipness—still seems to exist in the imagination as that flat province populated by wheat farmers. I guess dispelling that impression requires a somewhat more direct, less postmodern approach.


  1. The Ridger said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 6:53 pm

    I laughed and want to buy that t-shirt.

  2. CClinton said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 7:23 pm

    Well, that slogan certainly makes me chuckle, and now I kinda wanna visit Saskatchewan to at least to get that shirt, if not to appreciate the other kinds of humor they might have there.

    So in that regard, I think it works.

  3. Vicki said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 7:27 pm

    Or at least "I remember why they're called the 'Habs'"?

  4. bloix said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

    "Thomas Chapais, during a speech given for the occasion of the unveiling of a bronze statue honouring de Lévis, on June 24, 1895, said: "…the province of Quebec has a motto of which she is proud and which she likes enough to carve it on her monuments and palaces. This motto has only three words: "Je me souviens"; but these three words, in their simple economy of expression, are worth more than the most eloquent speeches. Yes, we remember. We remember the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories."

    In the hall of the Parliament building in which the motto is carved above the door, are the arms of the Marquess of Lorne whose motto was Ne obliviscaris ("Do Not Forget"). Consequently, Duval believed "the motto of Quebec to be at the same time the translation of the Marquess of Lorne's motto and the answer of a French-Canadian subject of Her Majesty to the said motto."


  5. K.B. said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 7:42 pm

    Well, what do you expect from a province where a hoodie is known as a bunny-hug and chocolate milk as Vico? :)

    I lived there for 10 years, so I'm allowed to poke fun – and most people there have a great sense of humour, especially when it comes to laughing at themselves.

    Now, if you could only figure out for me the nuanced differences between a slough and a pothole (not what the rest of the world terms a pothole. Also, "dugout" in Saskatchewan has nothing to do with baseball), I'll be forever grateful. After 10 years, I still never figured that one out…

  6. Chandra said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 7:45 pm

    I think the slogan does quite a nice job of capturing a particularly Canadian brand of self-deprecating patriotism.

  7. Joe Fineman said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 8:49 pm

    I had always supposed that Quebec's motto alluded to the well-known song that ends

    Si tu vois mon pays, mon pays malheureux,
    Va dire à mes amis que je me souviens d'eux.

    The province has neglected to provide Anglophone drivers with license plates that say FORGET IT.

  8. Martin J Ball said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    For a long time, New Brunswick had no license plate slogan. I always hoped they would bring in: "New Brunswick – too good for slogans"

  9. Jair said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 10:06 pm

    Well, it catches your attention, and more importantly, it is memorable: After hearing this slogan, ignorant USians such as myself will have no trouble remembering which one is Saskatchewan. Compare to other name-recognition devices in advertising, such as Geico's gecko, etc.

  10. Mr Punch said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 10:11 pm

    Quebec's slogan was, I believe, adopted when the independence-minded PQ took power, with approximately the "more sinister" meaning suggested – before that Quebec license plates said "la belle province," sort of a northern version of "photoscenic New Hampshire." What I've always wondered, though, is why it is thought necessary to translate "Nova Scotia" into French.

  11. Barrett said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 10:36 pm

    Nova Scotia is latin

  12. marie-lucie said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

    Quebec's slogan was, I believe, adopted when the independence-minded PQ took power

    It is much older than that.

  13. Tony said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    It's a pretty common approach: you can't make fun of us because we've already made fun of ourselves. You might recognize it from the elementary school playground.

    It's also a good example of the kind of humor you find in marketing—it's built like a joke but it isn't actually funny (think of the Progressive insurance commercials).

  14. Julie Sedivy said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

    Those truly curious about the origins and import of Quebec's "Je me souviens" motto can look at Thierry Le Brun's National Film Board documentary on the topic.

  15. James Harbeck said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 11:30 pm

    Re: Saskatchewan: I reckon it means "We're hip." Also "We hired a hip agency to do a hip ad. Get it?" 'Cause it's, you know, catchy.

    Re: Quebec: I have heard it said that what they remember is that they have been fooled twice. You know, in the national anthem, "et ta valeur, deux fois trompé…" Yes, I know it's actually "de foi trempé," but at least some Quebecers seem to think it is the former, and others appreciate the joke. So what were the two times? Aside from the referenda (which postdate the anthem considerably), there's the loss at the Plains of Abraham and, well, honestly, a whole lot of other complaints, pick one.

  16. MattF said,

    September 7, 2011 @ 11:58 pm

    There's also a subtext about the silliness of slogans. A (possibly apocryphal) story– Wisconsin had a contest to select a new license plate slogan, and the runner-up was 'Eat Cheese Or Die.'

  17. ShadowFox said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 12:46 am

    There is a line in Wolverine (the movie) that recaptures an old love-hate relationship adage: "No one kills you but me." A similar sentiment is expressed in a Russian kid's rhyme (popularized by the Radio-nanny show): "I will not let anyone harm my little sister Lida. If it's necessary, I'll beat her up myself." This is the essence of tribal self-deprecating humor–let no one make fun of my tribe even if I make fun of us myself. This is true of Jews, Poles, African-Americans… and Saskatchewan. So just because they are self-deprecating, don't assume that they will let you mock their backwardness and folksiness.

    Still, I can see the next T-shirt that mocks the enigmatic slogan: "Sasquatchewan–Hard to spell. Harder to embrace", with a picture of Big Foot fitted into the original "rectangle". The provincial Chamber of Commerce will not be amused.

  18. ShadowFox said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    "Eat cheese or die!" is not apocryphal. It was indeed submitted in the contest for the Wisconsin license plate slogan in 1985. But it was not a runner-up—it was left out of the final 20.

    From NYT:

    Wisconsin's appeal for suggestions for new license plates generated more than 46,000 reponses in less than a week, but the final five designs do not include the most novel proposals: cow-shaped tags and the slogan "Eat Cheese or Die." Those two ideas were rejected by Gov. Anthony S. Earl's selection committee, which narrowed the field to 20.

  19. ShadowFox said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 1:06 am

    Wisconsin slogans have caused a lot of discussion in recent years, mostly because since that 1985 decision they have been incredibly lame. The latest one (2009) was stolen from Bacardi Rum commercials. And Wisconsin was not the first state to screw the pooch on this one: Pennsylvania stepped in it too when their chosen slogan, "State of Independence" turned out to be the official theme of Saab.


    There is one mistake in that post–the "Eat cheese or die!" slogan obviously has been around since before 1985. Ann Althouse was not a law professor back then–in fact, she hadn't even gone to law school.

  20. Chad Nilep said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 1:06 am

    "Easy to X, hard to Y" is a common enough snowclone. COCA includes:

    easy to say, hard to do
    easy to recite, hard to accept
    easy to identify, hard to miss
    easy to give, hard to take
    easy to collect, hard to escape
    easy to allege, hard to identify

    as well as the Saskatchewan-like reversed variants

    hard to define, easy to allege
    hard to build, easy to destroy

  21. gw said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 2:51 am

    It seems to me that people are getting the "hard to spell" part exactly wrong by thinking that it means Saskers can't spell their own province's name – this is after all a tourist slogan, so it is more likely directed at (actual or potential) *visitors* to Sask. In which case it makes total sense – trying to admit a minor difficulty and overcome it: yes, visitor, we recognize that it might be hard for you to remember how to spell our name ("hard to spell"), but there's really nothing offputtingly difficult about the place – it's a nice, big, clean province ("easy to draw"). You can stretch out and relax here. In the US as well, the squareness of the western states is pointed to as an indicator of their vastness and hence the free, untrammeled, wide-open unspoiled natural spaces the visitor can look forward to. By contrasting with the geographically-determined squiggly borders of the eastern provinces and states, the squareness means that they have plenty of room out west to spread out. To me, this makes "easy to draw" is a fairly good choice of "nice" attributes to contrast with "hard to spell" in terms of attracting tourists. It suggests a convenient, nicely iconic logoform (which is, as advertised, easy to draw, while still being recognizable in that the upper, darker shading represents the Canadian Shield in the province's north while the lighter shading in the lower part is the plains area). A good logo and a slogan that goes with it. Only problem, apparently, is that for whatever reason nobody seems to get it when they try to analyze it critically.

  22. Rolig said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 3:03 am

    I am surprised your respondents found the Saskatchewan logo so opaque. "Hard to spell. Easy to draw." The meaning seems clear, and cleverly put: "Don't be put off by our difficult name; we're easy to understand, easy to appreciate, easy to enjoy." The simplicity of the province's political geography becomes a metonym for simplicity in general, with the assumption being that in this overly complex world, simplicity is a good thing. The logo is not so much postmodernist as minimalist.

  23. other one spoon said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 3:07 am

    My question is, is "Saskatchewan" even actually at all difficult to spell? How else would one spell it? "Sasscachawon"? "Saucecatcherone"?

    [(myl) For one possible mistake, see Tim Nudd, "Saskatchewan Party impresses no one by misspelling ‘Saskatchewan’ in TV ad ", Adweek 5/18/2006. I'm sure there are other variants out there: 'Saskachewan' and 'Saskatchawan' come to mind.]

  24. Lance said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 3:44 am

    Personally, I'd love to see I remember how the English bastards smashed us in battle and oppressed us economically, and I promise to counter their linguistic imperialism using all means necessary, including enforcing legal requirements that English appear on Montreal restaurant menus only in microscopic font guaranteed to make anglo eyeballs bug out. on a license plate. In French.

  25. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 4:15 am

    The Saskatchewan state motto joke seems to be a cross between two other jokes I recall hearing. One is about Texas and police paperwork. Two Texas policemen are gaining on a suspect who is driving fast on southbound I-35E out of the Dallas area, approaching Waxahachie. The cop in the passenger seat says to the one who's driving, "Do you know how to spell Waxahachie?" The reply is, "Nope." And the first guy says, "We can let him drive on for a while — pick him up in Waco."

    The other is a joke I remember hearing Garrison Keillor deliver in front of an audience of Iowans on his radio show "A Praire Home Companion." It involved an alleged contender for a new license-plate slogan for Iowa: "Warmer than Minnesota; more interesting than Nebraska."

    Mix the essence of the two jokes, and it seems to me you get the feel of the Saskatchewan one: embarrassment about a non-English-looking name and rural diffidence about literacy skills from the first; self-deprecation about homely features and lack of topographical surprises from the second.

  26. maidhc said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 4:46 am

    People in Alberta tell Saskatchewan jokes, but that in itself is sort of an admission of defeat–"The only people who will laugh at us are Albertans".

  27. matthew edney said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 6:35 am

    Few commentators seem to wonder about the graphic logo (understandable as this is a blog on verbal and written language). The "logo map" is a major element in the creation of many national/local identities since the late 19th century (perhaps even the mid-18th century) (see Guatamala, India, Texas, Maine, France, etc. etc. etc.). The logo is reacting to this pervasive modern practice. (And is therefore at least ironic, edging towards postmodern.) It suggests Saskatchewan is not fixed/complete but growing and active. Thus S. is hip and worth a visit. And you know it's really hip 'cos they don't color within the lines! Although there are also hints of the Canadian favorite past time of worrying over national identity. But what I really like about the post is the reminder that while I can appreciate/claim to recreate the mind set of the advertising copy writers, response to the ad is a mixed bag of meanings!

  28. tnv said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 6:38 am

    I agree with Other One Spoon – what is so hard to spell about 'Saskatchewan'? The potential for the k to be a c, maybe, but otherwise, it seems a perfectly straightforward word.

    It often seems to me that in English, 'longer than a certain number of letters' seems to automatically imply 'hard to spell.' It would be curious to know whether studies have determined what that number is (7 +/- 2?) and what to do about this, because it makes people throw up their hands in defeat at otherwise very easy words.

  29. Michael Briggs said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    I live in Oregon, Wisconsin (partly to confuse people), and I remember when the state's motto was "You're among friends." The wind was removed from its sails when the case of Jeffrey Dahmer (the cannibalistic murderer) was in the news and the motto was rapidly transformed by the folk process into "You're among fiends."

  30. Colin John said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 7:49 am

    The game of Mornington Crescent: 'a lifetime to learn, a minute to master'.

  31. Peter S. said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    Quite a while ago, when the New Hampshire legislature was debating whether to change their license plate motto from "Live free or die" to "Visit scenic New Hampshire", somebody proposed a compromise: "Live free or die in scenic New Hampshire".

  32. Brian Throckmorton said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 8:21 am

    Judging from Google results, "Sasketchewan," "Saskatchwan" and "Saskachewan" are leading contenders for misspelling; also "Saskatchewon." And somebody thought people would benefit from this mnemonic: "Sam and Sue kiss at the church hall every Wednesday after noon."

  33. Sally Thomason said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 8:57 am

    I bet it's self-deprecating humor — very common in that part of the world. It reminds me of the wonderful huge billboard that used to greet I-94 traffic heading west into Bismarck, North Dakota. Bismarck is in the middle of the state, where it's flat, flat, flat. The billboard had no pictures, as I recall, just these words: WELCOME TO NORTH DAKOTA. MOUNTAIN REMOVAL PROJECT COMPLETED.

    Sadly, the billboard disappeared a few years later (and I stupidly neglected to take a picture of it).

  34. arthur said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    The premise isn't quite accurate, as I recall from a painful experience in sixth grade when I chose to write a report on Saskatchewan because I thought it would be easy to draw (I did learn all about potash) . The Manitoba border isn't a straight line, but a series of small steps, because of the impossibility of drawing a straight North/South line on a round planet.

  35. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 9:29 am

    If the slogan were "hard to spell, easy to like," then nobody would find it confusing. The trouble comes with "hard to spell, easy to draw." A few people respond positively, seeing "easy to draw" as a favorable description meaning "big, clean, unspoiled, wide-open, relaxing." A few people see S as making a self-deprecating joke, precisely because "easy to draw" isn't a favorable description. But the rest of us just stand there puzzled, wondering, "why is 'easy to draw' supposed to be a good thing?"

  36. Ellen K. said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    No, Barrett, Nova Scotia is a English language name that derives from Latin. The question, I believe, is why not use the same Latin-derived name in French, rather than calling it Nouvelle-Écosse.

  37. Karen McM said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    I grew up in Saskatchewan and I think the slogan is both accurate and amusing. I would guess there is no deeper meaning, much like the t-shirt that reads, "There are no kangaroos in Austria."

    To those of you who think Saskatchewan is easy to spell: you were clearly never a 5-year-old Saskatchewanian.

    @arthur: The north-south roads aren't straight lines either, for the same reason.

  38. Tom Vinson said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    As a slogan it seems to work. At least the province is being publicised on Language Log. It will also keep me from confusing Saskatchewan with Manitoba (easier to spell, more complex to draw) in the future.

  39. Spell Me Jeff said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 10:55 am

    Like a lot of ironic humor, the Saskatchewan joke strikes me a little cliquish — but in a fun way. It almost seems to say, "if you get this joke, you'll like hanging around with us" — us in this case meaning the Saskatchewanians who came up with the joke.

    I could imagine the same sort of thing coming out of a lot of university towns that have a distinct artsy side, like Austin or Iowa City. Texas, Iowa, and Saskatchewan obviously have their share of yokels, but the joke isn't meant for yokels, and we're not exactly inviting you to hang out with the yokels.

    With the added layer of complexity ("easy to draw") that seems to say, "Yeah, not only are we cool enough to pull off a joke like this, we actually do hang with the yokels."

    And thus the heresy of paraphrase. My version has a note of condescension that I don't detect in the original. (Or maybe I'm just not cool enough to get that.)

  40. Flex said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 11:47 am

    It is interesting that in all these comments on language log no one has mentioned an alternative meanings of the word 'draw'.

    Could there be a hint of using the word 'draw', meaning to attract, as a subtext in the motto?

    Or is that too subtle?

  41. Rube said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 12:08 pm

    @ Flex:

    Yeah, I'd say too subtle.

    I lived in Saskatchewan for a few years, and it really does seem like the kind of joke my friends would make in the bar after work. I really don't know if I can come up with any any analysis deeper than that.

  42. D. Sky Onosson said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

    @ Spell Me Jeff: I can't think of too many other groups of people who are overall less condescending than Saskatchewanians.

    And I have to concur with Karen McM; Saskatchewan is a pretty tough nut to crack if you're learning spelling in the context of Canadian geography in elementary school. I'm actually surprised that they didn't go with the "hard to say" angle rather than "hard to spell". I've certainly had my share of experiences with non-Canadian adults who see the name of the province and inevitably ask something like "How exactly are you supposed to pronounce that?"

  43. Ben C said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 12:34 pm

    Wyoming could learn a lot from Saskatchewan. Notably, I did see a T-shirt with a sort of great-circle-mashed rectangle on it that said, "Colorado: it's hip to be square".

    Further reminded of Demetri Martin's famous dictum regarding state boundaries: "Go toward the squiggles."

  44. Nancy Friedman said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    Then there's Kansas, "First of the Rectangle States." (Other revisionist state mottos here: http://geography.about.com/library/misc/blhumor11.htm)

  45. Robert Coren said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 4:15 pm

    @Peter S.: Re: "Live free or die in scenic New Hampshire": Does anyone else remember the incident back in the late '60s/early '70s when the state government of NH went after a car owner who covered up the slogan on their license plate? When I heard about it, I wanted them to change the slogan to "Live Free or Else".

  46. Janice Byer said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 7:16 pm

    Robert, yes, heh. It was the mid 70's, I believe, when a NH court ruled in favor of the vehicle owner's free speech right to obscure the state motto but only the motto. As I recall, the owner had anyway only taped over "or die", apparently being in good conscience agreement with the imperative "live free". The court clarified that the state, for its part, had a statutory right to require an owner fully and clearly display those parts of the plate that identified the state that had registered the vehicle, the date [year] the registration was valid, as well as the entire alphanumerical code identifying the vehicle By way perhaps of public education, the court I remember said something about dirty plates being in violation…

  47. Janice Byer said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    Another government-sanctioned ditty that proved controversial was the 80's anti-litter campaign slogan "Don't Mess with Texas" which the eponymous state printed up on bumper stickers it distributed for free. As I recall, the state was initially delighted by the demand, the goal being to inhibit roadside litter, only to cease printing them after it became rumored that tourists were interpreting them as hostile.

  48. maidhc said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    Back when Quebec had "La Belle Province", there was a fuss over someone who changed his plate to "The Pretty Province". Unlike the NH case, though, I think he was forced to change it back.

  49. AussieBel said,

    September 8, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    This reminds me of Brent Butt's TV comedy series 'Corner Gas', which was based in rural Saskatchewan. It starts with a vistor driving through Sask. stopping at the Corner Gas (petrol / gas) station, and the attendant fills his car. The visitor says: "Gee it's flat (land) out here…" in a small talk / phatic communion way, and the station attendant answers with something like: "Oh my gosh, where did the mountain go!". This for me at least breaks Grice's Maxims of Relevance and Manner.

    [(js) It's hard not to think of Brent Butt's "Corner Gas" in interpreting the slogan, and I'm sure that being familiar with the program colored how I read it. That gas attendant must have been the snarky Wanda Dollard, who, it should be noted, is an intellectual in disguise as a yokel, with a major in comparative religion, and a minor in… linguistics!]

  50. Roy Scranton said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 8:23 am

    My one experience with Saskatchewan was brief, but gave me a deep respect for Sakatchewanian irony.

    Why exactly they pronounce the name of their capital "Rej-EYE-nah," rather than "Rej-EE-nah," as you might expect, I don't know. But the blank-faced yet spiky wit with which they responded to my repeated expressions of disbelief ("Rej-EYE-nah? Really?") taught me that the slogan goes the other way too.

    Easy to draw, that is, but hard to spell.

  51. Martin J Ball said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 8:34 am

    @Roy Scranton:
    the pronunciation "Rej-EE-nah" is not what I'D expect! The Sask pronunciation is the normal pronunciation in the UK as well, should one be naming the Sask capital or, for example, 'Victoria Regina' from the coins etc.

  52. Rube said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    @Roy and Martin:

    Yes, I associate "Rej-EYE-nah," with Saskatchewan and Her Majesty, "Rej-EE-nah" with young ladies who would take their fashion tips from the Kardashians.

    I'm always fascinated by the totally different things that seem "natural" to people.

  53. Rodger C said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 10:10 am

    As they sing at coronations: "VIE-vat! VIE-vat! VIE-vat rej-EYE-nah!"

  54. Rodger C said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    By the way, surely one of the sources of humor in the joke is that "Saskatchewan" as a word to spell and Saskatchewan as a place to draw are really two different referents?

  55. quodlibet said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    Where do they make those New Hampshire license plates?

  56. BobN said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 10:57 am

    @Arthur and Karen – It is perfectly possible to draw straight north-south lines – They are called lines of longitude. Looking into the jagged edge thing a bit, it seem it has something to do with the fact that as you go farther north, the lines of longitude get closer together. The off-sets of the border were set-up so the land parcel sizes would stay the same. (at least from what I could find from a quick google.)

  57. marie-lucie said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 11:07 am

    "VIE-vat rej-EYE-nah"

    This is the English pronunciation of Latin which reflects the Great Vowel Shift. "Vie-vat" is no more strange than "Lie-vely" and came about at the same time, for exactly the same reasons.

    Saskatchewan phonology: it is not obvious that local people will say SAAskatOOn.

  58. Jon Weinberg said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 11:27 am

    @Robert Coren & Janice Byer: Wooley v. Maynard, 430 U.S. 705 (1977), http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0430_0705_ZS.html

  59. hector said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    Not sure what the fuss is about here. I'm with Chandra; this is a case of rather typical Canadian self-deprecating humour. Many (not all) Canadians are put off by American flag-waving. We're northerners: we believe in modesty and moderation.

    [(js) Sure, but it takes some inferencing to get that it's self-deprecating humo(u)r. What I thought was interesting was how many of my respondents seemed to fail to get to that point. Most commenters here don't seem to be having that trouble but this could be impacted a) by self-selectional criteria as language geeks and b) by being primed by the context of the discussion of the post.

    And: as a fellow Canadian, I would have to respond to your comment that when it comes to our national identity, perhaps it's more that we northerners believe in the appearance of modesty and moderation, all while rather immoderately enjoying it. It's very much patriotism as anti-patriotism, as I see it.]

    And there's nothing hipper-than-thou about this slogan. It's the kind of joke an average, everyday resident of Saskatchewan would make about the province he lived in, and his fellow residents would laugh at appreciatively. Like the bumper stickers we used to have in Vancouver: "another shitty day in paradise." (Vancouver's the least-wintry major city in Canada, hence "paradise," but it is rather sun-deprived, hence "shitty day".)

    And as to flat-land tourist campaigns, my wife's from North Dakota, and she delights in singing the state tourist song of her youth:

    Ya oughta go ta North Dakota
    See the cattle and the wheat
    The folks that can't be beat

    Ya say hello ta North Dakota
    And you just can't say good bye-ay-ay

  60. Rodger C said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 3:13 pm

    @marie-lucie: I didn't think it was strange at all. I read Allen's Vox Latina 43 years ago.

  61. Olga said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

    I always take special delight in watching Americans flinch when I tell them that I live in Regina. Also, the city is known as the Vaj.

  62. Mary Kuhner said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

    My state spent a lot of money on a new slogan and ended up with the (mercifully short-lived) "Say WA?"

    I parse "Say wha'?" as an expression of somewhat hostile incredulity, similar to "What the f***?" but slightly more polite. In my idiolect this is a *terrible* slogan, but someone must have liked it. To me it sounds like part of a dialog:

    "I'm headed to Washington State."

    "Say wha'? Why on earth would you go there?"

    The state also got a lot of flack over the slogan's price per word: I forget the number but it was rather large. Also it took 9 months per word to choose!

  63. marie-lucie said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 6:30 pm

    Rodger C., sorry if I misunderstood you. I meant that Vie-vat was not something new.

  64. Mark F. said,

    September 9, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

    I had no idea that "regina" was pronounced rej-EYE-na in the UK. My first thought was "but that's not how you learn to say it if you take Latin", but then neither is "reJEEna". Still, at least the vowels are closer.

    Reminds me of a Monty Python scene one time where someone was offering some "mine strone soup", which I would have pronounced "minna strony". I was never sure how typical that pronunciation was meant to be in the UK, but I thought mine at least had the syllable count closer to the Italian. Then you just have to ask the question of why I should emulate the original pronunciation of a borrowed word, since it only makes it harder for kids to learn.

  65. Army1987 said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    “Down to earth, with a sense of humor. We have trouble spelling, just like you” quite closely matched the way I interpreted it.

  66. briggslaw said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    I think ReJEYna only sounds odd to many ears because it rhymes with and is misheard as vaJEYna. Which raises the question: why isn't that word pronounced vaJEEna if we're going to insist on faux Latin pronunciation? My Latin teacher would have described ReJEEna as "church Latin" and pronounced the word ReGHEEna.

    And don't get me started on "via." I cringe at "VEEa."

  67. Ellen K. said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 8:43 am

    I'm having a new appreciation for IPA and really wishing this conversation about pronunciation of Regina was happening in IPA rather than whatever one calls what people are using. I can't for the life if me think how Briggslaw gets "vaJEYna" as a pronunciation of "vagina". And earlier I was wondering what happened to the G, because I was seeing the J as representing part of the dipthong [eɪ], which would be the singing anglicization of the first vowel in the Latin "regina". Took a while to figure out that J meant [dʒ] (that is, the J sound).

  68. Army1987 said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 12:13 pm

    No, Barrett, Nova Scotia is a English language name that derives from Latin. The question, I believe, is why not use the same Latin-derived name in French, rather than calling it Nouvelle-Écosse.

    The real question is why not call it “New Scotland” in English. :-)

    I would guess there is no deeper meaning, much like the t-shirt that reads, "There are no kangaroos in Austria."

    Why, that's obviously making fun of people confusing Austria with Australia.

  69. Janice Byer said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    Jon Weinberg, thank you for the link. I hadn't remembered it went all the way to the Supreme Court (!) and am gratified to learn our rights of expression have been upheld that high.

  70. Robert S. Porter said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 2:58 pm

    As someone who has lived in Saskatchewan for 23 of my 25 years, I find the effort people have taken to decipher this slogan to be hilarious. That anyone would would think it anything but literal is astonishing.

    I would also say that I cannot say that I've ever seen that logo anywhere in the province. Perhaps non Saskatchewians are taking them elsewhere, but I've never seen an ad or billboard with it. I'm thinking it is an old slogan, no longer in use (the current phrase seems to simply be "Naturally." Which was much derided by locals). That said, I've heard the phrase spoken many times.

    As for other people saying it's hard to spell, a simple tool taught in grade 1 was Sask-At-Chew-An. Once you learn that it's dead simple. Thus I've known it since I was 6.

    To remember the pronunciation of Regina it's also simple (but crude): Regina: the city that rhymes with fun.

  71. Janice Byer said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 3:52 pm

    "…[The t-shirt slogan 'there are no Kangeroos in Austria'] is obviously making fun of people confusing Austria with Australia."

    Alternatively, it can be read as making fun of Austria's lesser international profile.

  72. Janice Byer said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 3:54 pm

    …and thus self-deprecating of Austrians who sell them.

  73. maidhc said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 5:25 pm

    I've always understood veye-a to be a preposition ("we went via Chicago") and vee-a to be a noun (via: a drilled and plated hole connecting two layers on a printed circuit board).

  74. briggslaw said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 5:26 pm

    That was meant to be "ey" as in "eye." Sorry about that. I agree that using IPA would be clearer. Adjourning now, sEYE-nee dEYE-ee.

  75. W. Kiernan said,

    September 10, 2011 @ 10:01 pm

    An ad that speaks to me! "Come to Saskatchewan, land surveyors, where the mapping is easy and you can do all your coordinate math in your head."

  76. Janice Byer said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 1:16 am

    "sEYE-nee dEYE-ee" ?? Brigs-lah, what fresh challenge is this? It's over my decrepit monolingual Yankee head.

  77. briggslaw said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 6:09 am

    Sine die (without a day, indefinitely). Not sure how that comes out in IPA using the "old" English pronunciation of Latin.

  78. TD said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    I think that the slogan does make quite a lot of sense, and is actually quite clever in pointing out the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign:

    Whether a state has an easy-to-pronounce/spell or difficult-to-pronounce/spell name is just as irrelevant to what the state has to offer, as whether the state is easy/difficult to draw. So don't be put off by the strange/long/non-English sounding name, just as you would not hesitate to visit a state just because it was strangely shaped.

  79. Karen McM said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 10:13 am

    @BobN Of course it's possible to draw straight north-south lines of longitude, but the objective wasn't north-south roads; the objective was a perfect grid of roads on a one mile spacing. Correction lines were the best solution available. The north-south roads are continuous, BTW, with a smooth curve at the correction lines.

  80. Janice Byer said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 12:49 pm

    Briggslaw, maximus tibi gratias ago.

  81. Janice Byer said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 12:54 pm

    [I hope I copied that correctly, heh]

  82. Seonachan said,

    September 11, 2011 @ 6:57 pm


    The New Hampshire-based folksinger Bill Morrissey (recently passed away) wrote a song called "Live Free or Die" from the perspective of a prisoner forced to make those plates.

    "So if you catch your wife with another man
    It's best to hold off as long as you can
    And shoot him in another state
    Where they got a different license plate"

  83. Alon Lischinsky said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 4:07 am

    @briggslaw: IPA for the English pronunciation of 'sine die' is, according to the OED, either /ˈsaɪ.nɪ ˈdaɪ.iː/ or /ˈsɪ.neɪ ˈdiː.eɪ/. The restored pronunciation would most likely be /ˈsi.ne ˈdi.eː/ [ˈsɪ.nɛ ˈdɪ.eː].

  84. Grant said,

    September 13, 2011 @ 9:34 am

    My understanding is that countries that are 'easy to draw' have lower GDP per capita than those with squiggly, geographically defined borders.

    Presumably this has something to do with the 'artificial' nature of their origins….(rather than the messily organic shapes of others modified by geography/wars/ethnic identities/racial groups).


    also, ex-French colonial countries (e.g. in Africa) are generally now worse off than ex-British ones- probably as a result of differences in the legal frameworks surrounding property rights. I wonder if this is true inside Canada?

  85. Graeme said,

    September 15, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    Why does the 'map' in the logo look like a guillotine?

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