Dakota? Classic Dakota? Warmland?

A new name might improve state's image - or make it the butt of jokes on late-night TV.

Take heart, Rodney Dangerfield. You've got a new legion of empathetic fans. Try the entire population of North Dakota.

The state, never exactly a magnet for national respect, became a target for guffaws recently when it was revealed that a state booster organization in Bismarck had designs on dropping the arctic-leaning half of North Dakota's moniker to make it sound more inviting to outsiders.

The assumption is that by exorcising the word "North" and keeping only the name "Dakota," - which in the Sioux language means "ally" or "friend" - more tourists will want to visit the remote prairie, more businesses may decide to relocate, and perhaps even fleeing North Dakotans themselves might reconsider the U-Haul rental. But now many North Dakotans feel like a Hollywood actor whose secret desire for cosmetic surgery has been leaked to the world.

Although the state has more free publicity than money can buy (and bestowed a mother lode of Dangerfieldian shtick for late-night comics), it's not the kind of attention that has stoic North Dakotans laughing.

"We don't see the fun being poked at us as being very humorous at this point," says Lee Peterson, director of North Dakota's Economic Development and Finance Department.

It's one thing, Mr. Peterson says with incredulity, that Jay Leno should make the state the butt of jokes several nights running, but when it provides an opening for lowly South Dakotans to chortle, well, "uff da," it's enough to make even a Norwegian bachelor farmer want to hide his head in the prairie sod.

"Texans brag about things that don't matter," Peterson says. "North Dakotans are proud people, but you won't hear us boasting.... We know we've got a good thing."

In this most rural of the lower 48 states, whose native sons include Lawrence Welk and Louis L'Amour, a remarkable 96 percent of high school students graduate. And they get some of the highest average math and science scores in the world. The workforce is renowned for its Midwestern industriousness. The state served as the beloved temporary home and vacation getaway for Theodore Roosevelt, who hunted big game in the national park that bears his name.

The legislative assembly considered - and rejected - the name simplification in 1947. The proposal was resurrected but again dismissed 12 years ago, in conjunction with the state's centennial.

But this time around, advocates note a new impetus: hard challenges gripping the prairie.

Rural North Dakota is bracing against the steady loss of family farms and high school graduates leaving in search of jobs and never returning. The state notched 17 of the 50 US counties with the greatest population loss from 1990 to 2000.

Just as companies use brand names to jockey for market position, the advocates of "Dakota" believe the new name might bring greater momentum. But in an informal poll by the Bismarck Tribune, 97 percent of residents rejected the change.

Even if the plan gains unexpected steam, it would still need to be approved by the state legislature and US Congress.

Meanwhile, newspaper editor Keith Darnay calls the name-change scheme quixotic. "The perception of North Dakota as a vast, flat, windy, cold, lightly populated state will not change by virtue of a new name," he writes. "These are elements of North Dakota that are undeniable, regardless of whether we're called Dakota or California or Warmland."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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