Commenting on my column about beach lingo from the Jersey Shore and elsewhere, Gary Muldoon writes: “If someone from the Garden State comes from ‘Jersey,’ do those residents refer to someone from the Empire State as being from ‘York’?”
“Jersey” as a nickname for New Jersey is an oddity: there’s no corresponding clipping of “New York” to “York,” “New Hampshire” to “Hampshire,” and certainly not “New Mexico” to “Mexico.” Some have complained that the use of “Jersey” is “demeaning” to the state. David Lavery, author of “This Thing of Ours: Investigating the Sopranos,” agrees: plain old “Jersey,” with its “familiar and slangy” feel, “does not elicit respect.”
Those who dislike the “Jersey” label may be surprised to discover that it has a distinguished historical pedigree. I asked Maxine N. Lurie, professor of history at Seton Hall University and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of New Jersey, about the usage, and she traced its origins to the end of the 17th century, when there were actually two “Jerseys”: the provinces of East and West Jersey, dividing the territory of New Jersey along a diagonal. (New Jersey was named in honor of the proprietor of East Jersey, George Carteret, who hailed from the Island of Jersey.)
Because of this split, it was common to talk of “the Jerseys,” even after the provinces were united in 1702. Lurie suspects it was “easier to refer to the ‘Jerseys’ and people from ‘Jersey’ than to say ‘East New Jersey’ and ‘West New Jersey.'” The historical record bears this out: 18th-century documents are peppered with mentions of “the Jerseys,” and colonial accounts from 1735 and 1746 refer simply to “the province of Jersey.”
Another factor that helped “Jersey” shed the “New” was the proliferation of compounds with “Jersey” as the first element. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “Jerseyman” from 1679, “Jersey maid” from 1713, and “Jersey blues” (the name of the local militia regiment) from 1758. Inhabitants of New Jersey could also be called “Jerseys,” as in a 1756 letter from George Washington that read, “The Jerseys and New Yorkers, I do not remember what it is they give.”
Many of these colonial vestiges carried over into statehood, though instead of East and West Jersey, the state has more typically been divided into North and South. Standalone “Jersey” worked its way into place names, too. Notably, in 1804, The Jersey Company incorporated the City of Jersey, counterbalancing the City of New York on the other side of the Hudson River. A few decades later it was reincorporated as Jersey City.
Making compound forms with “Jersey” has certainly never let up: consider the Jersey Shore and the Jersey Devil, Jersey justice (the rough kind) and Jersey lightning (strong liquor, usually applejack), Jersey boys and Jersey girls. Jersey Joe Walcott won the world heavyweight boxing title in 1951, and concrete highway dividers have been called “Jersey barriers” since the late ’60s.
New York has, for the most part, missed out on all of this “New”-less naming. New Yorkers were sometimes called “Yorkers” back in the revolutionary era (Abigail Adams wrote that “a regiment of Yorkers refused to quit the city” in a 1776 letter), but the epithet never stuck. There wasn’t much compounding of “York” either, except for the “York shilling,” a bygone local currency that lingered until 1865, according to H.L. Mencken.
That only makes the “Jersey” legacy even more peculiar to the state. As a born-and-bred Jersey boy, I embrace this idiosyncratic heritage. Sure, “Jersey” (or, God forbid, “Joisey”) can be used derisively at times, but Jersey-bashing won’t suddenly disappear just because people use the state’s full name. Better to revel in the timeless lyric of Bruce Springsteen, “My machine she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey.”
Ben Zimmer, New York Times