North Dakota is talking about changing its name. I frankly didn't know you could do that. I thought states' names were decreed by the Bible or something. In fact, as a child I believed that when Columbus arrived in North America, the states' names were actually, physically, written on the continent, in gigantic letters, the way they are on maps. I still think this would be a good idea, because if an airplane's navigational system failed, the pilot could just look out the window and see exactly where the plane was. ("OK, there's a huge 'W' down there, so we're over Wyoming. Or, Wisconsin.")
But apparently states can change their names, and some North Dakotans want to change "North Dakota." Specifically, they don't like the word "North," which connotes a certain northness. In the words of North Dakota's former governor, Ed Schafer: "People have such an instant thing about how North Dakota is cold and snowy and flat."
We should heed the words of the former governor, and not just because the letters in "Ed Schafer" can be rearranged to spell "Shed Farce." The truth is that when we think about North Dakota, which is not often, we picture it as having the same year-round climate as Uranus.
In contrast, SOUTH Dakota is universally believed to be a tropical paradise with palm trees swaying on surf-kissed beaches. Millions of tourists, lured by the word "South," flock to South Dakota every winter, often wearing nothing but skimpy bathing suits. Within hours, most of them die and become covered with snow, not to be found until spring, when they cause a major headache for South Dakota's farmers by clogging up the cultivating machines. South Dakota put a giant fence around the whole state to keep these tourists out, and STILL they keep coming. That's how powerful a name can be.
I'll give you another example. I live in Florida, where we have BIG cockroaches.
Q. How big are they?
A. They are so big that, when they back up, they are required by federal law to emit warning beeps.
These cockroaches could harm Florida's image. But we Floridians solved that problem by giving them a new name, "palmetto bugs," which makes them sound cute and harmless. So when a guest walks into a Florida kitchen and screams at the sight of an insect the size of Charles Barkley, we say: "Don't worry! It's just a palmetto bug!" And then we and our guest have a hearty laugh, because we know there's nothing to worry about, as long as we do not make any sudden moves toward the palmetto bug's sandwich.
So changing names is a sound idea, an idea based on the scientific principle that underlies the field of marketing, which is: People are stupid. Marketing experts know that if you call something by a different name, PEOPLE WILL BELIEVE IT'S A DIFFERENT THING. That's how "undertakers" became "funeral directors." That's how "trailers" became "manufactured housing." That's how "We're putting you on hold for the next decade" became "Your call is important to us."
And that's why some North Dakotans want to give the state a new name, a name that will give the state a more positive, inviting and forward-looking image. That name is: "Palmetto Bug."
No, seriously, they want to drop the "North" and call the state, simply, "Dakota." I think this change is brilliant, and could also work for other states with image problems. New Jersey, for example, should call itself, simply, "New."
Be advised that "Dakota" is not the first shrewd marketing concept thought up by North Dakotans. Are you familiar with Grand Forks, N.D.? No? It's located just west of East Grand Forks, Minn. According to a letter I received from a Grand Forks resident who asked to remain nameless ("I have to live here," he wrote), these cities decided they needed to improve their image, and the result was get ready "The Grand Cities."
The Grand Cities, needless to say, have a Web site (grandcities.net), where you can read sentences about The Grand Cities written in MarketingSpeak, which is sort of like English, except that it doesn't actually mean anything. Here's an actual quote: "It's the intersection of earth and sky. It's a glimpse of what lies ahead. It's hope, anticipation and curiosity reaching out to you in mysterious ways. Timeless. Endless. Always enriching your soul. Here, where the earth meets the sky, the Grand Cities of Grand Forks, North Dakota and East Grand Forks, Minnesota."
Doesn't that just make you want to cancel that trip to Paris or Rome and head for The Grand Cities? As a resident of Florida ("Where the earth meets the water, and forms mud") I am definitely planning to go to Dakota. I want to know what they're smoking up there.
Dave Barry is a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.