Saturday, December 30, 2006

The skinny on Sconnie

After Troy's comment today on the early 'Sconnie' post, I leaned on my operative to deliver the goods on his research. (What do you profs do when you're not teaching anyhow?) Here, at last, is the result:

Mr. Verb,
I have to first thank you for the privilege of being the first guest to post on this blog.

You asked me to investigate the use and history of sconnie with a variety of folks. As I think you’ve said (here or elsewhere), it looks like we might be catching the key moments in the history of this word: It’s gone from unknown to heavily commercialized in a few years. The comments below are informal and surely lacking on various counts – maybe they will inspire more discussion of the topic here or elsewhere.

I’ve gotten feedback from over a dozen natives of Wisconsin, from the whole state (Milwaukee area to Madison, Green Bay to Eau Claire to Rice Lake and beyond), and covering a good range demographically except for race (all white, but they who grew up upper middle class to working class, in cities, suburbs, rural areas, etc.), and ranging in age from 20s to 50s. In addition to good upstanding citizens, I talked to a couple of folklorists and lexicographers from here.

Basic meaning. The recent stuff has been about this as a label for people from here, but several people report it (and some google hits show it) used for the place, so ‘I’m a Sconnie’ and ‘I’m from Sconnie’ both seem to be widespread.

Usage. Many people don’t report using it at all, but everyone knows it, and all knew it before Sconnie Nation, I think. It sounds like it was tied to college life for many. A surprising number of folks say that they’ve heard it when they were out of state – in the west mostly – among college students, typically from here originally.

Almost all see it as a clearly positive term, but see below, and none of my unscientific sample has any really negative reaction to it – unlike your commenter. People mostly seem to regard it as preferable to cheesehead, which sounds ‘goofy’ to some, for unsurprising reasons. (I still wear my ‘Cheesehead by Marriage’ t-shirt with pride.) A number of people noted the commercialization issue, with a wide range of attitudes toward that. Beyond the ale and the clothing, someone from Madison’s East Side reports that Glass Nickel Pizza there now has a “Sconnie Pizza”, containing bratwurst, mustard, cheddar cheese and sauerkraut. As my correspondent said “I think I'll pass...”. (I can’t find it on their on-line menu.)

Luanne von Schneidemesser from the Dictionary of American Regional English has some great quotes from student papers and such, again tending to be positive, of the “I’m pure Sconnie, born and bred” type. I’d be happy to follow up on the topic when I get the hard copies of stuff she’s sending.

History. Nobody seems to report knowing or hearing it more than a few years back. A couple of folks (northern Wisconsin and Madison) report using Wisco before that, again for the place and people. A local watering hole (often described as a ‘biker bar’ – though I’ve been there and hardly consider it a particularly rough joint, but then I'm from down South) was apparently known in some circles as the Wisco Disco in the 80s. The term was commercialized first, as far as I can tell, with Sconnie Ale a few years back, but Sconnie Nation not only owns the rights to the name, but has gotten the term a much higher profile.

Insider/outsider. As you noted earlier, terms for any social group often show great differences in meaning/affect depending on whether they’re used by insiders or outsiders, so I asked about this.

Again, a lot of insiders don’t use the term but for those who do, Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures associate director Ruth Olson, folklorist originally from northern ‘Wisco’ or ‘Wisco-land’, reports:
I mostly hear it from my college students, and they use it in a very positive, celebratory way.
Here’s a typical view on outsider usage, by someone from the suburbs west of Milwaukee who doesn’t use the term himself:
As far as I can tell, it is usually in situations where the 'wisconsin way' of doing something is 'cute' or 'silly'. So they would say "You 'Sconnies and your cheese curds" or "You 'Sconnies sure love Favre." I only hear it in this cutesy/teasing way, never in neutral situations (like "4 million 'Sconnies live in the state"), and usually not in really negative ways.
So, maybe there’s still some semantic settling going on here. (Did I learn that term/notion from you?).

Repeatedly, as in the newspaper article about Sconnie Nation, it’s contrasted with Coastie, which folks report as a negative term. I suspect it may be even as negative as Illie, ‘person from Illinois’ (= the Land of Flat). But I don’t find any hint anywhere of the truly negative meaning that is associated with Hoosier by non-Indianans, where it means ‘ignorant hick’ and the milder meanings listed in dictionaries (see the various news stories about the old Dan Quayle effort to get it redefined). And no need to comment on FIB, ‘effin’ Illinois bastard’, a term widespread here and one I heard in Indiana too.

By the way, I wonder if you shouldn’t consider making this into a group blog – give a few folks access to posting here. In the past, you’ve posted stuff others have passed along, me included, and this might make it a little easier. Mrs. Verb could have her own posts – I'd pay for a subscription to hear her views on some issues. What do you say, Mr. Verb?

This ends up looking more like a conference paper than a blog post, but that’s a risk you take when you ask an active academic this kind of favor!



Rosina Lippi said...

Ha! I knew you had some connection to good ole Joe. I knew it.

Mr. Verb said...

Awwww, him. I knew he'd work for cheap, and he's never very busy ...

Green Bay Night Life said...

Oh boy! I have lived in wisconsin all my life. My mom and dad have lived in wisconsin all their life. We have asked friends and relatives what a sconnie is. Although we could take a guess no one so far that I talked to ever heard of it being used.

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, it's pretty Madison-based, it seems like, esp. with college students.