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Life is full of existential questions.
Why are we here? What does it all mean? If there is indeed a heaven, will I be kept out for not putting on my blinker when I cut off that family of four on the Southeast Expressway this morning?
And if you’re like some folks around here, another query takes up space on your list and in your brain: What do you call someone from Massachusetts?
That’s what readers were most curious about in our latest vote to decide which pressing local conundrum the Globe should investigate next.
First, some background: The Commonwealth’s name itself is taken from the Massachusett tribe of Native Americans, “who lived in the Great Blue Hill region, south of Boston,” according to Secretary of State William Galvin’s office. While the term roughly translates to “at or about the Great Hill,” Galvin’s office says, there is some discussion around its precise definition.
Interesting, but not particularly helpful. Let’s fast forward. A lot.
If you spent any time online over the summer, you might recall an August edition of our new national pastime, “Here’s what we should be mad about today.” The brouhaha began innocuously enough: Someone on Twitter shared the official list of demonyms from the US Government Publishing Office’s style manual.
The list included the usual suspects that we often use and hear: Rhode Islander, New Yorker, Floridian — simple. Succinct. No argument here.
And then there was Massachusetts.
The round-up pegged us as ... hang on let me turn off my spell check for a second ... Massachusettsans.
Big yikes. That would be a fightin’ word, if we could consider it a word at all.
“I love language and I love proper grammar,” Boston City Councilor Matt O’Malley tweeted at the time. “I do not love ‘Massachusettsan’ as a term for us.”
If you’ve lived here long enough, you’d know a lot of ridiculous things tend to come out of residents’ mouths. “Massachusettsan” is not one of them. We’re also not inclined to let anyone who’s not from here call us names we don’t want to be called. And so the rebuttals were swift.
“I think it’s just not a practical name,” said Peter Drummey, Stephen T. Riley librarian for the Massachusetts Historical Society. “I think it would bewilder most people walking around in Boston or anywhere in Massachusetts — let alone any place else in the world.”
(Of note: this very newspaper may bear at least some of the responsibility for elevating the use of Massachusettsan, which has been published in the Globe as far back as 1906, as Boston.com pointed out recently. Nobody’s perfect.)
Which brings us back to the question at hand: If we reject the federal government’s designation of Massachusettsan, then who are we?
Believe it or not, Massachusettsan lawmakers (sorry) somehow found time to take up this pressing issue. According to state General Laws Part I, Title I, Chapter 2, Section 35, “Bay Staters shall be the official designation of citizens of the commonwealth.”
The name was approved by the state Legislature in December of 1990. But Massachusetts has largely always been “Bay.”
“Before it’s Bay Staters it’s Bay colonists,” said Drummey.
The use of “Bay State” to refer to Massachusetts dates back to the late 1700s, Peter Sokolowski, editor-at-large at Springfield-based dictionary company Merriam-Webster, said in an e-mail.
The relative simplicity of Bay Stater, he said, “is doubtless the reason that it has stuck,” since other failed demonyms over the years, like the above mentioned Massachusettite, Massachusettsan, Massachusettsian, and John Adams’ unwieldy and quite frankly offensive Massachusettensian, don’t exactly “roll off the tongue.”
“Some names of states simply do not lend themselves to predictable, idiomatic, or easily pronounceable demonyms,” Sokolowski added, “and Massachusetts is one such name.”
But if Bay Stater doesn’t do it for you, then the more brash terminology used to refer to a Massachusetts native is also on the table: Masshole.
Sure, it was intended as an insult, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which added the word to its lexicon in 2015. But it’s become more of a badge of honor.