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The Straight Dope


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I recently moved from Minnesota to Washington, D.C. Not only did I leave behind 10,000 lakes, it seems I left the United States as well. No, I'm not talking about the drive for District statehood. I'm wondering why my new home, Virginia, is called a commonwealth instead of a state. Is there a difference between Virginia--and the commonwealths of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky--and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico? If there's no legal difference, how come Puerto Rico doesn't get a star on the U.S. flag? --Tim Walker, Washington, D.C.

Oh, fine, Timsy, stir up the revolutionaries. Fact is, in this country we've got commonwealths and then we've got commonwealths. Old-style CWs, including VA, MA, PA, and KY, hark back to a 17th-century notion of the state (generic, not U.S.) as common enterprise--you know, all for one, one for all, that kind of stuff. The proto-Virginians at Jamestown referred to their undertaking as a commonwealth virtually from the day the colony was founded in 1607.

A few decades later in England "the Commonwealth" came to mean the period of Puritan rule under the Cromwells, 1649-1660. The big-C Commonwealth having collapsed, the notion of a little-C commonwealth assumed a distinctly antimonarchical cast and "commonwealthmen" became ardent republicans. For that reason, as well as the original idea of common enterprise, the term commonwealth commended itself to rad (well, semirad) Massachusetts statesman John Adams. Adams must have been a good persuader; the folks who walked into the Bay State's constitutional convention in 1780 styled themselves "the Delegates of the People of the State of Massachusetts-Bay" but came out carrying "the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts."

Later "commonwealth" evolved to mean a voluntary association of colonies or nations. Thus in 1900 we had the commonwealth of Australia, a collection of former colonies amalgamated into a nation, and later the British Commonwealth (now merely the Commonwealth, to avoid the imperialist taint), an association of former British subject states.

It was apparently the latter brand of commonwealth that Washington brain-trusters had in mind when they pondered the future of Puerto Rico in the 1940s. "Commonwealth" status was the perfect have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too compromise, signifying that Puerto Rico was sort of independent but not really and sort of a state but not really that either. Don't worry about the Old Dominion, though. Legally the old-style commonwealths are indistinguishable from states, and from the standpoint of terminological coolness you've got states beat by a mile.

Is it true that, as my father says, companies that produce maps (Rand McNally, etc) make up some little bitty towns and dot them around their map design so they can tell if anyone copies it? Has anyone ever gotten lost trying to find one of those made-up towns? --Susan Owen, College Station, Texas

The folks at Rand McNally swear on a stack of road atlases that they would never do such a thing. However, they admit that a small regional map company called Champion, which they bought a while back, did put a "copyright trap" into a map on at least one occasion. The trap consisted of a nonexistent street stuck into a map of a medium-sized city in New York state--a fact that was gleefully revealed on CBS This Morning a few months ago. On investigating, Rand McNally found some smart-aleck cartographer (you know what a wild and crazy bunch they are) had gone ahead and done the wicked deed on his own. Whether they tortured the guy to reveal other cartographic sabotage by sticking double-O drawing nibs under his fingernails I do not know. But the possibility of additional fakery does exist--and may for a while, since checking every detail of a map is a huge job. Not that I'd get into a panic about it, but on your next road trip you might want to bring a flashlight and a can of Spam just in case.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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