This Side of the Pond
Notes from an Uprooted Englishwoman
March 11, 2021
I’m so proud of you guys. I thought the Brits were the only ones incapable of coming up with sensible names for things, but you’ve gone and proven me wrong.
Following in the grand tradition of the United Kingdom’s snow removal team, the Department of Transportation for the State of Minnesota recently launched a contest to name its incoming fleet of snowplows – one new plow for each of the eight districts. They can’t possibly have expected a scholarly reaction and that’s good, because they did not get one.
Instead, if you move to Minnesota any time soon, you can expect your highways to be cleared in the winter by F. Salt Fitzgerald (one hopes it doesn’t get distracted too often by champagne and jazz) and Plow Bunyan (particularly suited to forest roads).
In other districts, you can spend some time wondering exactly what local clichés must have led to the names, “Ope, Just Gonna Plow Right Past Ya,” and “Duck Duck Orange Truck.” There is, of course, a Plowy McPlowFace, of which I am particularly proud because it must surely have been inspired by the high-tech, state-of-the-art scientific vessel now patrolling the Arctic that was named via contest by the British public and will forever be known as Boaty McBoatFace.
Star Wars fans will be thrilled to hear that it’s now possible to live in a place where your roads are kept safe by Darth Blader and Snowbi Wan Kenobi. If music is your thing, you might want to head instead to District 8, where The Truck Formerly Known As Plow is stationed (in case, like me, you were not previously aware, Minnesota is the home of Prince).
Seriously, I’m so proud. It’s a shame they only had eight plows to name, because some of the runners up were equally deserving. Wouldn’t you just love to call on the Blizzard of Oz to clear your road, or Edward Blizzardhands?
Ridiculous names for sensible machinery has been a tradition in the UK since 2006, when Scotland asked elementary school kids to come up with ideas for their plows, which in my neck of the woods are called gritters. These days, there is an online map that tracks the gritters via GPS, so you can watch the strangely named contraptions on their ponderous journeys about the motorways.
Scotland has now named all 213 of its gritters and the results were on fine display a couple of weeks ago when Storm Darcy hit. The naming contests have been widened to include Scots of all ages and the results can be nothing short of marvelous.
The most recent set, for instance, includes “You’re a Blizzard, Harry” and “Lord Coldemort” in homage to the world of Harry Potter. There’s also Sleetwood Mac and Snowcially Distanced, as well as several tributes to Sean Connery including On Her Majesty’s Slippery Surface and Coldfinger.
My all-time favorite is “Ready Spready Go”, although it’s a close contest between that one and “Spready Mercury”. Scotland has also gotten in on the Star Wars action with “Han Snow-lo”.
It’s suddenly much easier to see how we ended up with a scientific vessel called Boaty McBoatface, isn’t it? As an addendum to that particular tale, the spoilsports who own the boat have officially named it after Sir David Attenborough, but they still can’t stop us from all referring to it as Boaty.
However, despite Scotland’s best efforts, the phenomenon of ridiculous names only took off as an internet trend in 2007, and it was thanks to, of all things, a humpback whale. Greenpeace was trying to raise awareness of the whales threatened by hunting in the South Pacific Ocean and asked the internet to name one of the animals it was tracking.
The second most popular name in that contest received only 3% of the vote (it was Humphrey, in case you were wondering). All the rest of the names, like Aiko and Mira, got less than 1%.
Topping the list with an incredible 97% of all votes was the name that was eventually used, despite a great deal of reluctance from Greenpeace. Today, if you were to go for a swim in the South Pacific, there’s a chance you might still run into Mister Splashy Pants.
Naming-polls-gone-wrong became quite the fashion after that. In Texas, for instance, cheeky citizens voted to name the solid waste department after the lead singer of Limp Bizkit: “The Fred Durst Society of the Humanities and Arts,” while Slovakians once overwhelmingly voted to name a new pedestrian and cycling bridge after Chuck Norris.
Not every naming contest has gone well, but I think Minnesota’s announcement proves that they definitely work in the field of snow removal. And now we’ve seen clearly that the public is perfectly capable of coming up with names that nobody will quickly forget, it is my great hope that the rest of the nation will follow suit.
We have a lot of claims to fame in this great state of ours, but so far we’ve been left out of this trend. Wyoming Department of Transportation, I’m lookin’ at you.