The Problem With TN

In The Scruffy Citizen by Jack Neelyleave a COMMENT

You’ve heard the hubbub about the new state logo, which is a white TN on a red background.

One complaint is about the public cost, which is in the middle five figures. But it wasn’t the cost that bothered me most, though what the state paid somebody for typing those two letters was more than I usually get for a full year of writing. In a year, I figure, I type more than one million individual letters that get printed somewhere.

Maybe all of them put together don’t compare to these two: T, N.

Somebody’s getting about 500,000 times as many cents per letter as I am. Nice work, if you can get it. I wouldn’t begrudge anybody else’s luck in finding that kind of a gig.

It’s not the bright crimson that bothered me all that much, either, although a few locals have found its similarity to the Crimson Tide’s crimson unsettling. And some cynics believe our Legislature, which has lately been overwhelmingly Republican, likes the fact that the logo brands the state permanently red. You can’t be too careful. It was a blue state during presidential elections as recently as the 1990s.

What bothers me is the sort of concern that might most likely bother people who have worked as editors. It’s the abbreviation itself.

TN never existed as an abbreviation for Tennessee until 1963.

Most Tennesseans who ever lived­—W.C. Handy, Patsy Cline, James Agee, Bob Neyland—never saw the letters “TN” and understood them to mean “Tennessee.” But it was in 1963 that the U.S. Postal Service imposed its ZIP code system, and with it a standardized two-letter code for every state. The idea was not just that two letters might be easier for overworked employees to type in, but that a standardized two-letter state code would leave room for the new five-digit codes. That number’s what the postal employees and their machinery really paid attention to, and you don’t want a long state name crowding it off. In a way, it was a deliberate diminution of the importance of states in the postal scheme of things. The ZIP code is supreme.

That new TN signature—capital letters crowded together without punctuation—seemed to mimic the cold, clean, mod corporate logos of the era. As I recall, nobody took it very seriously in its first several years. Into the ’70s, the two-letter state designation was still a goofy federal-government imposition most people were happy to ignore. I learned to write business letters in high school, more than a decade after the TN code was introduced, and I was trained to write “Knoxville, Tenn.”

All through that time, over the past half-century that we’ve been using the two-letter code on our mail, the old, officially respected state abbreviations have not changed. Respected abbreviations for one-word states are the first part of the word, as in Tenn. and Ala., or the beginning and end, as in Ga. and Ky.

Even in 2015, it’s still AP style to write “Knoxville, Tenn.” It’s also New York Times style and Knoxville Mercury style. To my knowledge, no respected newspaper or magazine uses TN as an abbreviation for Tennessee.

Later, though, perhaps inspired by the post office’s success, the twin-capital style was used for a variety of medical conditions that are hard to pronounce or embarrassing to have, like RA or ED. In medical circles, by the way, TN is trigeminal neuralgia.

In any case, TN is just two consonants from a word with a lot of vowels. Tennessee’s a Cherokee word, and in Cherokee, vowels are important. Often it’s the vowels gracefully slipping over each other that tip you off that a place name is Cherokee: Pellissippi, Hiwassee, Chilhowee, Tennessee.

Tennessee has four Es, more Es than any other state does. In fact, Tennessee has more Es than the name of any nation in the world. In “TN” we don’t get to see any of them.

Instead, we have a capital N. What does the N stand for, exactly?

If you know, please share. Maybe that’s a koan, with the same answer as “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Or “What does the fox say?”

To the post office, in 1963, the N is there for one reason: because the other T state, Texas, doesn’t have an N in it. The implication is that without the N, folks might get Tennessee mixed up with Texas. It’s the way robots think.

So the N means, in rough translation, “Not Texas.”

TN has no official meaning except at the post office, and even there, it’s meant to be paired with a ZIP code. If the red is indeed a political statement, the TN suggests an irony. It was the imposition of a federal taxpayer-dependent bureaucracy.


do feel the pain of those who would resort to such a blank and unimaginative symbol. Finding any single symbol for Tennessee would be daunting to anybody, even high-paid typists. Agriculture, manufacturing, or show biz? Eastern or Central? Steep, lush mountains or broad, flat river plains? We have thousands of square miles of each.

Blues or bluegrass? We’re famous for music, but when we submitted an image to symbolize it on the quarter, we couldn’t decide on one, so we sent pictures of three instruments rarely found in the same band: a fiddle, a guitar, and a trumpet.

Urban or rural? Tennessee’s overall population density is almost five times greater than that of the United States as a whole, and it contains five cities that are each bigger than the biggest city in several states, including, say, South Carolina.

However, it’s still a state of rural areas, small towns, and suburbs. More than 75 percent of Tennesseans live in communities smaller than Knoxville.

Topography, demographics, economy—I’m not sure any state has more diversity per capita. That’s great until you feel obliged to come up with a symbol for it. But I think the three stars in a circle still works.

Jack Neely is the director of the Knoxville History Project, a nonprofit devoted to exploring, disseminating, and celebrating Knoxville's cultural heritage. He’s also one of the most popular and influential writers in the area, known for his books and columns. The Scruffy Citizen surveys the city of Knoxville's life and culture in the context of its history, with emphasis on what makes it unique and how its past continues to affect and inform its future.

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