18 November 2019

Overthinking “Flyover Country”

I’ve lived all my life in California or New England, but my family roots on both sides are in the Midwest, and I’ve spent many pleasant times there.

I never subscribed to the dismissive label of that part of the country as “flyover country.” And in fact I never heard anyone from the coasts use that term.

I just read a National Geographic blog article confirming that pattern. The first author known to use the phrase was the Michigan-born Montanan Thomas McGuane referring to where he lived.

What’s more:

A search through Google’s massive archive of scanned books and periodicals finds that many subsequent occurrences of flyover country come from people who, like McGuane, put the phrase in someone else’s mouth. Rarely is it ever used by a New Yorker or Angelino as a pejorative.

“It’s a stereotype of other people’s stereotypes,” lexicographer Ben Zimmer says. . . .

It’s defensive but self-deprecating, a way of shouting out for attention but also a means for identifying yourself by your home region’s lack of attention. It’s the linguistic nexus of Minnesota nice and Iowa stubborn. This self-identification has become a celebration.
It may be true that Americans from the coasts don’t consider or visit the Midwest as often as they should. But that includes not spending mental energy to come up with pejorative terms for the region.

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