By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.
In his creatively humorous January 11, 2016 column titled “Our Elders have Gone Mad Again,” my brother and senior colleague Mr. Tunde Asaju joked that I "insist" that America "should not be called God’s Own Country." Several people who didn’t understand the inventive tongue-in-cheek humor in Mr. Asaju’s writing wrote to ask why I "dissed" my host country by saying people shouldn’t call it "God's own country."
|Welcome signs like this are the reason Nigerians think America calls itself "God's own country"|
Since it seems most people have no capacity to tell satire from fact, I thought I should clarify that it is not I who said America should not be called “God’s own country”; America does NOT, and has NEVER, referred to itself as “God’s own country.” It is only Nigerians who call America “God’s own country”—and who think and claim that America calls itself “God’s own country.” Asaju was only calling attention to an article I wrote on March 12, 2011 debunking the mistaken notion that America’s national motto is “God’s own country.”
In the more than one decade that I have lived here, I have never come across a single American who is even faintly familiar with the idea that America is called “God’s own country”! And I have traveled to more than 30 of America’s 50 states. I have traveled to northern, southern, western, and eastern states of this country, and have actually taken the trouble to ask most of the people I have interacted with if they recognize the phrase “God’s own country” as their national slogan. Almost always, my question elicited quizzical looks. “God’s own what? Never heard of that!” That’s the standard response I often get.
But what is even more perplexing, for me, is the fact that only Nigerians think— and say—that America’s national motto is “God’s own country.” I have asked many of my Caribbean, South American, Middle Eastern, and Asian friends here if they know America to be “God’s own country.” None of them has ever heard America identified with that slogan. So why are Nigerians the only people on earth who call America “God’s own country”? How did Nigerians come to associate that term exclusively with the United States?
I don’t know, but my sense is that it is the result of a literal understanding of American idiomatic English by Nigerians. In American English, the phrase “God’s country” simply means “one’s own homeland,” that is, the place where one was born and raised, as in: “Welcome to God’s own country, and we hope you will enjoy your stay among us.” It can also mean “an isolated rural area,” or a naturally beautiful area, especially in the countryside. Many isolated rural communities in America welcome visitors to “God’s own country.” ("Country" means "rural area.") But the idiom has fallen into disuse among younger Americans.
|This sign tells the real meaning of "God's own country" in American English|
I asked students in all three classes I teach this semester if they knew the meaning of—or ever heard—the expression “God’s own country.” None has ever heard of the expression, much less know what it means. The only student who has any familiarity with the expression was a Nigerian-American who said, to laughter, “that’s what my parents, and I guess Nigerians in general, think America calls itself!”
My guess is that early Nigerian visitors to America mistook the old American English idiomatic expression “welcome to God’s own country,” which they probably encountered in many parts of the country, as evidence that the country called itself “God’s own country” and brought back that mistaken notion to Nigeria. But this begs the question why only Nigerians understood—and still understand—that expression literally.
My second theory is that Nigerians associate the phrase with America because of the false attraction of the somewhat similar-sounding phrase “In God we trust,” which has been inscribed on American coin currencies since the 1860s and on its paper currencies since 1957. It was also adopted as America’s official motto in 1956. It has been (unsuccessfully) challenged by American secularists and atheists, although a 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans approve of it.
Nonetheless, New Zealand is actually the first country in the world to officially refer to itself as “God’s own country.” The phrase was introduced to the country by Thomas Bracken, one of New Zealand’s most influential poets and journalists who also had the distinction of being the sole author of his country’s national anthem.
|New Zealand is the first country to adopt "God's own country" as its official national motto|
According to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “God’s own country” first appeared in Bracken’s last major book titled Lays and lyrics: God's Own Country and Other Poems, which was published in 1893, six years before his death. New Zealand’s longest-serving and most influential Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, who ruled the country from April 1893 to June 1906, was intrigued by the phrase “God’s own country” in the title of Bracken’s book. So, in 1893, he adopted it and gave it governmental imprimatur as New Zealand’s motto.
Years later, Australia, New Zealand’s closest neighbor to the southeast, “stole” the slogan. In the 1970s, Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, also called itself “God’s own country” in acknowledgement of its stunning scenic splendor. But after independence in 1980, the motto was dropped. Other places that used to or still call themselves “God’s own country” are Ireland and England’s Yorkshire County (which sometimes renders the phrase as “God’s own county”).
But the part of the world that is now more popularly known by the “God’s own country” tagline than even New Zealand is India’s Kerala State, located in the southern part of the country. It adopted the tagline “Kerala—God’s own country” in the 1990s in its bid to attract and boost international tourism. The National Geographic Traveler, a well-regarded US-based international tourism magazine published by the National Geographic Society, named Kerala one of the “ten paradises of the world” and “50 places of a lifetime.”
During America’s Civil War between 1861 and 1865, the northern army (often called the Union troops in American history books) who were fighting southern secessionists usually called their homeland, that is, the American north, “God’s country.” This was perhaps intended to slight the south.
The phrase was at best a self-important regional label that also signifies notions of homeland and rural beauty; at no time did it refer to the whole of the United States. It is not clear if New Zealand’s Bracken “stole” the phrase from the American Union troops since they used it earlier than he did. From my point of view, however, this seems improbable given the vast geographic distance between America and New Zealand, not to talk of the sluggish pace of informational flows at the time.
But it suffices to state that many contemporary Americans have no memories of this Civil War-era reference to the American north as “God’s own country,” and never ever refer to their whole country as such, contrary to what many Nigerians believe.