Friday, January 22, 2021

USA: Rhode Island State's Name Change

Map of the State of Rhode Island - formerly the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations - from the United States National Atlas
State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The island hosting Newport (lower right) is the original "Rhode Island", while "Providence Plantations" referred to the mainland area around Providence (top right). (Public domain map)

Rhode Island Name Change Now in Effect

Tiny Rhode Island has become the first of the 50 US states ever to change its name.

Even many Americans don't realize that Rhode Island, the smallest US state by area, actually had a longer official name until last year: State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. 

But in a referendum on Nov. 3, the same day as the 2020 US presidential election, the state's voters chose to amend the state constitution and shorten the name to just "State of Rhode Island". 

Learn More: The 3 Geography Referendums Held Alongside the 2020 US Presidential Election

The state's board of elections formally certified the referendum results on Nov. 30, finalizing the name change's win with 53% support against 47% opposition.

The Rhode Island constitution states that any amendment put to a public referendum becomes law once the voters approve it - implying, as far as we are able to determine, that the name change officially took effect at the time the results were finalized on Nov. 30, 2020.

Providence Plantations: Why Did Rhode Island Change its Name?

Ironically, most of Rhode Island state is not an island at all, and even the actual island it was named for is now called by a different name. The "Providence Plantations" referred to part of the state's larger mainland area, with the word "plantation" then meaning an agricultural colony founded as part of the British Empire. But "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations" is inconveniently long, and it ended up getting shortened in all but the most formal circumstances.

In modern times, the word "plantation" has mostly fallen out of use in the US, except in reference to the historical period when millions of African Americans were bought and sold as property, and forced to work for free on colonial "plantation" farms. Though the practice started under British rule, most of them weren't freed from slavery until the 1860s - almost a century after the US gained independence from Britain. 

Most slave plantations were located farther south in the US, and the name Providence Plantations didn't originally refer to farms using slave labor. However, Rhode Island did play a massive role in  transporting enslaved people into the country, and some farmers in the state did hold slaves.

Map of Rhode Island state's location within the US: A very small state nestled in among the country's far northeast along the Atlantic Coast
Rhode Island is the smallest state of the US by area
(Wikimedia Commons; CC BY-SA)

Changing Rhode Island's Name: How Did It Happen?

Campaigns to remove "Providence Plantations" from Rhode Island's full name have historically been controversial, with many arguing that the change would promote incorrect assumptions about the state's history. A name change proposal nearly identical to the 2020 one was rejected by 78% of voters in another referendum ten years earlier. 

But in 2020, the proposal for the first time had the full support of the state's governor, who even ordered the long-form name removed from government-issued documents months before the referendum came to a vote. In her decision, she cited the advice of slave-descended Rhode Islanders who said even the word "plantations" by itself continued to serve as a painful reminder of inequality.

The US also saw a massive shift in public opinion about slavery's legacy during 2020, leading to growing enthusiasm for action against symbols and institutions that were seen as helping prop up racism. Maybe because of that, the 2020 name change passed with a massive 30-percentage-point increase in support over the 2010 proposal, even though the state's voters were still close to evenly-divided on the question overall.

The Longest State Name in the US: Move Over, Rhode Island

Trivia and pub quiz enthusiasts take note: Not only has Rhode Island's official name changed, but that also means Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is no longer the longest full name of any US state. That dubious honor now goes to its next-door neighbor to the north: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. 

With 27 letters and 8 syllables in its long-form name, Massachusetts is now the winner, at least in writing: The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is also pronounced 8 syllables, but spelled with only 26 letters. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations had been the undisputed longest name before the change, clocking in at 42 letters and 10 syllables, but now has been chopped down to just 18 letters and 4 syllables ("State of Rhode Island").

Then again, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania would be left in the dust if the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, currently an overseas dependent territory of the US, was considered one of the states. It flaunts a full 39 letters and record-breaking 13 syllables. But with a status similar to Puerto Rico, lacking official statehood or any votes in the US legislature, the Northern Marianas are still out of the running - for now.

Interested to know when countries and states change their names? You can filter PolGeoNow's news coverage to only show articles about name changes!