Bison Bellows: What's in a name?

The bison commemorative quarter from Kansas
Bison are featured on Kansas' state flag, the bicentennial commemorative quarter, and is recognized as the official animal symbol for the state.

Public domain photo

Have you ever tried an online search for the word "buffalo?" If you do so by Google, you will see that there are over 1.3 trillion online references to that single word-buffalo! The United States official bird- the bald eagle- only has approximately 4.8 million online references! Simply printing out the word "buffalo" at 1-inch length 1.3 trillion times approaches the Earth's circumference! The word "buffalo" is now used for seemingly almost anything, from cities to sports teams, recipes, animals, clothing, toys, tools, and even ideas! There is a dizzyingly array of uses in businesses, government, non-government, public and private entities, advertisements, and more! The term "buffalo" is definitely not used exclusively to describe the largest charismatic animal in North America that we see roaming wild on some of our public lands.

Amongst the most common sustained uses of "Buffalo" is to denote a place. When you ask someone where "Buffalo" is located, a common answer is New York, but New York is not the only state with a Buffalo city or town. There are 13 other states that also have cities named Buffalo: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. And if there weren't enough cities to confuse you, try the 24 mountains that are named "Buffalo." There is also Buffalo River, Buffalo Trace, Buffalo Springs, Buffalo Lake, Buffalo Valley, and Buffalo Wilderness Area. It seems the list of places named "Buffalo" never ends.

The United States has a history of naming places and items after animals. Some states have peculiar city names such as Chicken, Alaska; Alligator, Mississippi; and Coyote, New Mexico. There is even a Fly, Ohio! What is most interesting though is the sheer magnitude of places named "Buffalo." If so many places are named "Buffalo," you might be asking yourself why it is so common. There is not an exact answer to this, but bison are an important icon in the American experience. Buffalo, or bison, represent much more than America's largest mammal. They are culturally ingrained in American history and they often are seen to embody the strong, powerful, and resilient characteristics of the American people. Maybe so many places are named "Buffalo" to honor and remember such an iconic species of the American past. We name places and things that have great value to us, and as exemplified in the vast amount of places and items named "Buffalo," bison seem to be extremely valuable to us.

What might be named next with "buffalo?" No one can really know whether 1.3 trillion uses represent the upper limit of societal penchant for the word. What we could strive to envision is additional uses of the word as place names for landscapes where bison are newly restored. Perhaps new tribal national parks or new national preserves named after the "buffalo!" Now, that would be something to celebrate!

Read more Bison Bellows here.

Did you know?

"Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo" is a grammatically correct sentence in the English language. If you clarify with a few prepositions and nouns, the sentence reads: the buffalo from Buffalo who arebuffaloed by buffalo from Buffalo, buffalo (verb) other buffalo from Buffalo.

Last updated: November 6, 2017