Altered States

by John Delach

Gary Gulman has a wonderful comedy routine about how the government decided to set the two-digit code for every state. Gary begins his routine by explaining that he recently watched a 93-minute documentary about the group of “abbreviators” the government brought together in 1973 to convert the existing abbreviations each state preferred into two-letter codes. The existing shortcuts were confusing at best with many having little in common. For example, Alabama was Ala, Hawaii and Idaho were Hawaii and Idaho respectively, Kansas was Kans, Missouri was Mo and Pennsylvania was Pa. So off to work these appointees went and, while they were at it, they also included two-letter codes for Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Northern Marianas and Palau.


Gulman explained that the documentary placed the abbreviators in a hotel conference room fully expecting to wrap this up quickly enough to enjoy the hotel breakfast buffet before it closed.


All right, let’s do this in alphabetical order and let’s do it quickly so we can get out of here. First up: Alabama; make that AL. Next up: Alaska, (and the first moans.) Let’s skip that and go to the next state; Arizona. Easy, AR…next, Arkansas…’oh s***! We’ll go back to those two. Next: California, easy- CA, next: Colorado…CO, hey, we’re on a roll, Next: Connecticut…damn, damn, damn!


In exasperation one participant screams out: “How many times can this happen?”


Gulman answers for him: “Twenty-Seven!”


In fact, the documentary he refers to doesn’t exist. Nevertheless it has become an urban legend and has even been given a title: “The Abbreviated State.” It is simply a figment of Gulman’s imagination that he uses as the vehicle to introduce his routine. Despite this fact, there remains a small army of truthers out there combing through the corners of the internet desperately seeking to find it.


But Gulman’s routine does beg the question, how did the postal service select the more difficult choices for these codes? Absent a conspiracy model, most decisions appear to be logical, practical or both.


Eighteen states and two territories already used two letter abbreviations so the Postal Service agreed that they would retain those letters as their new codes. Missouri retained MO and Pennsylvania, PA. The list included DC, GA, KY, MD, all the popular “New’s,” NH, NJ, NM, and NY, not to mention the four geographical names, NC, ND, SC and SD. Other codes became shortened versions of the existing abbreviations. Miss became MS, Minn-MN, Ariz-AZ, Nebr-NE, Fla-FL and Iowa-IA.


Some must have been show stoppers. Texas versus Tennessee or, Tex vs. Tenn. It would appear that calmer heads prevailed giving us TX and TN.


But the M’s must have been a tough nut to crack. Including Marshall islands and Micronesia, there are ten and so we have ME, MD, MH, MA, MI, FM, MN, MS, MO and MT. No, that’s not a mistype; the postal code for Micronesia is FM. (Two other territorial oddities are Northern Marianas – MP and Palau – PW.)


Had enough? I would think so and I do believe I should stop beating this horse. It is dead.


Next time out, I plan to offer a proper explanation of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System’s numbering codes. I will explain how we get from I-5 to I-95 and from I-10 to I-90. I will also explain why we make side trips on routes like I-115, I-278, I-391, I-495, and delve into why Florida’s I-8 exists. I will offer my opinion why all of the distance signs on I-19 south of the Tucson city limits on the way to the Mexican border are in kilometers and not in miles. Did you know, Bob and Ray, the interstate system includes: H-1, H-2 and H-3 on Oahu, Hawaii? Yes, Virginia, there is a method to all this madness.


As an aside, if you choose to watch Gary Gulman’s routine, please make sure you also watch another of his called “The Adolph Hitler Documentary.” Again he makes up the existence of a documentary to introduce his subject. This time he explains that a women friend told him about it but couldn’t think of the word, atrocities, so she used a synonym and told him it was called “Hitler’s Shenanigans.”