Demonyms and our fluid sense of place

Identifiers that used to anchor characteristics to communities may be slipping away in an increasingly unrooted world.

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No day is a complete bust if I make the acquaintance of a new word. So it was the other day when I ran across the term for the residents of BeijingBeijingers.

Can that be? I was skeptical until a colleague whipped out a reference to confirm it. Further checking after deadline turned up Beijingers spread thinly but widely, used by top-tier news organizations around the English-speaking world and on ChinaDaily.com, too.

Still further research turned up Shanghailander, for instance, to refer to a resident of Shanghai. It does suggest an interesting combination of bagpipes and chopsticks, doesn't it? Novocastrians are inhabitants of Newcastle – either Newcastle upon Tyne, in England, or the Australian city of Newcastle, in New South Wales. Both are coal cities, so coals can be carried to Newcastle in either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere.

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All these are examples of demonyms, terms to refer to the people of a particular place.

Many demonyms are pretty straightforward. You just have to know whether to add -ian (Bostonian) or, occasionally, the mineralogical-sounding -ite (Seattleite), or just the simple -er (New Yorker) ending. (The surprise of Beijinger, I think, is that it's so much like New Yorker or Londoner.)

Other demonyms, though, seem almost like one-word folktales.

There's Hoosier, to denote a resident of Indiana – and that really is the term. "Indianan" or whatever just won't fly. The people of Oklahoma are Sooners. Connecticut has its complicated stories about Yankee traders so clever they could sell wooden nutmegs. Hence the Nutmeg State and Nutmeggers.

Why are these so much fun? In a homogenized world, colorful demonyms signal distinct identities and a sense of place. But these specialized terms seem to be in danger of disappearing.

A couple of trends may be at work here.

One is that many demonyms are really adjectives in their form, and adjectival forms seem to be under stress. There's a tendency to modify nouns with other nouns rather than adjectives – even when the adjectives are shorter.

Thus one hears or reads references to the "Afghanistan government" instead of the "Afghan government." If the United States were fighting the Mexican War (1846-48) today, it might be called the Mexico War.

The other trend at work is that local identities are under stress in our globalized, mobilized world. Some people are rooted and anchored in communities where they've lived all their lives, but a lot of us aren't. I am a (happily) longtime resident of Boston, but "Bostonian" sounds like a character from a Henry James novel.

And Shanghailander does seem to have originated as a term for British expatriates in Shanghai before the Communist revolution of 1949. My idea about bagpipes was evidently on track. For ordinary residents, dictionaries prefer Shanghainese.

Several years ago, I saw an exhibition of the paintings of the Bruegels, the Flemish painters whose pictures helped form the general idea of what Europe looked like in the 16th century. One idea I came away with was that they painted all those scenes of village life not because that was the world they lived in, but because that was a world that they saw beginning to disappear. I've since thought of this phenomenon of celebrating not what is common in a place, but what is distinctive, as the Bruegel effect.

The same phenomenon is involved in my own delight in a term like Novocastrian – or even a zinger like Beijinger.

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