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VOL. 44 | NO. 1 | Friday, January 3, 2020

We’re not the Volunteer State, at least not yet

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A multiple-choice quiz. Tennessee’s official state nickname is:

A. The Hog and Hominy State

B. The Volunteer State

C. The Mother of Southwestern Statesmen

D. The Birthplace of Miley Cyrus.

OK, I made up that last nickname, though it is true. The others are all real. But the correct answer, believe it or not, is: E. None of the Above.

Tennessee has no official nickname, a fact that two Knoxville legislators want to remedy in the coming General Assembly session.

“My staff had been researching the origin of the Volunteer State as simply a curiosity,” state Representative Jason Zachary says. “It became apparent that while Tennesseans have been known as ‘Volunteers’ for more 180 years, Tennessee had never taken the step to make ‘the Volunteer State’ official.

“We were all quite surprised.”

No kidding. As readers of this column are aware, Tennessee legislators are no slouches when it comes to designating official state this, that or the others. The list began in 1919 with an official state flower, the passionflower, and has been added to at irregular intervals ever since.

Just last year, they added the bluetick coonhound as the official state dog and the Robert Spicer Memorial Buck Dance Championship as the official buck dancing competition.

I generally think of it as a benign exercise, and one that keeps legislative minds off more harmful pursuits. A notable exception was the effort to make the Bible Tennessee’s official state book, which Gov. Bill Haslam finally vetoed in 2016.

As for assorted nicknames, a bit of history, courtesy of statesymbolsusa.org:

“Hog and Hominy State – now obsolete, this nickname was applied originally because the corn and pork products of Tennessee were in such great proportions between 1830 and 1840.

“The Mother of Southwestern Statesmen – this nickname was applied because Tennessee furnished the U.S. with three presidents and a number of other leaders who served with distinction in high government office.

“Big Bend State – referring to the Indian name for the Tennessee River: ‘the river with the big bend.’”

As it happens, there’s some disagreement as to the origin of the Volunteer State. A popular notion is that it was inspired by the number of Tennesseans who signed on for service during the War of 1812.

An article in Appalachian Magazine from 2016 takes issue with that explanation.

“Though this is a compelling story, especially when one considers that Tennessean Andrew Jackson, ‘Ole Hickory’ himself, was the commander of American volunteers during this epic battle, most who have studied the subject have reached a different conclusion. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the nickname was given to the state during the Mexican-American War, during the late 1840s.”

(Note to Appalachian: Either Old or Ol’ is acceptable in connection with Hickory. Ole is reserved for Miss or Grand Ole Opry.)

Whichever war gets credit, the theme is the same: A propensity for Tennesseans to sign on whenever there’s a fight available. It’s just that nobody had ever gotten around to making the nickname official.

Zachary is joined in the effort by state Sen. Becky Massey, who was also surprised to learn of the omission.

“I felt it was a huge oversight and one that I wanted to help correct,” she tells me. She does not expect problems with righting things.

“I think this will be a piece of legislation that will pass with unanimous support and with many members signing on as co-sponsors,” she says.

Zachary concurs: “It may not be the best move as an elected official in the state of Tennessee to oppose this legislation.”I asked both whether it might be remotely possible that their past status as University of Tennessee students had any influence in their Volunteer devotion.

“As a Tennessean by birth, I felt a duty to codify this into state law after learning that we are not ‘official,’” Zachary says. “Being a UT Vol from birth definitely influenced my support as well!”

Massey took the broader view:

“The Volunteer State is bigger than the University of Tennessee,” she added. “It represents who we are as a state and represents our values. It’s part of what makes our state special ... in fact the best in our country.”

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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