For a long time I’ve taken it for granted that the reason New York’s official nickname is “The Empire State” is because, housing institutions like Wall Street, the UN and The New York Fed, New York City is one of the major seats for an informal global empire led in many ways by the US. I realized, however, that this could not possibly be the official reason for the title. So I did what any good Internet user would do and started my research with Wikipedia, finding a generally well-sourced entry explaining the following about the origin of the appellation:
“It is commonly believed to refer to the state’s wealth and resources; however, the true origin of the term is unclear.”
Wait. Let me get this straight. Nobody knows where it came from? The origin of the comically-honest official nickname for New York State is a complete mystery to everyone? That makes absolutely no sense, but alas, it seems to be the official narrative. Surely the title existed, at least in some form, many years before instututions like the UN would come into existence. So where did it come from, and why do not even historians or statesmen claim to know for sure how it began?
With the term “Empire State” so deeply ingrained in the New York culture and consciousness, particularly in New York City, it is truly shocking to discover that nobody knows the answer to such a basic question. Though once also unknown, even the origin of the incredibly-silly NYC nickname “The Big Apple” has been solved by researchers. The much larger question of the state nickname, however, somehow remains an unsolved mystery.
Is there a precedent for this kind of state nickname mystery in the United States? Do other states all know where their titles originated? There’s Vermont, The Green Mountain State, named for its…wait for it…rolling green mountains! There’s the Gem, Pelican and Sunshine States, also all nicknames with rather self-evident meanings. In the case of the Empire State, the meaning also seems self explanatory. And yet, allegedly, there is no truly definitive record of how it came to be.
The term seems to have been traced indirectly to George Washington in letters referring to New York as the “seat of empire,” but in the official 1940 A Guide to the Empire State it is claimed that no one knows for sure “who first dared that spacious adjective.”
So goes the bizarre mystery of the Empire State. Whether or not this strange blank page in the official historic record strikes you as disturbing, it most certainly arouses the curiosity.