How two-letter state abbreviations came about


Via Andrea James, I came across this clip of comedian Gary Gulman riffing on how the two-letter abbreviations for each state used by the US postal service came about. I sometimes get confused by them, such us not being sure if IA stands for Iowa or Indiana or AL is for Alabama or Alaska.

I started wondering what a better system might look like. The current system is given by this map.

us_state_abbrev_map

It would have helped if those in charge of naming the states as they entered the union had the foresight to make sure that no two of them shared the first two letters. But alas, that is too late. But the postal service should have avoided some obvious problems, such as by making Iowa IO or IW, which would have been easier to distinguish from Indiana.

They could also have decided that if two or more states shared the first two letters, then none of them would be granted those two letters and instead used two letters that were unique to that state. Michigan would be MG, Missouri could remain MO, and Mississippi could be MP. Maine, Maryland, and Massachusetts could be ME, MD, and MC respectively. Alabama could have been AB and Alaska could have been AS or AK. Arizona could be AZ while Arkansas could be AS or AK

There are still some ambiguities in the system because there would be some residual confusion as to whether AS or AK stood for Alaska or Arkansas, unless Arkansas was designated by AN.

I am sure that those residual bugs could be worked out if I put more time into this utterly pointless exercise. The trouble with being retired is that one has the time to pursue useless trains of thought.

Comments

  1. Friendly says

    Keep in mind that the two-letter abbreviations also apply to U.S. territories and to Canadian provinces. AS is the abbreviation for American Samoa and AB is the abbreviation for Alberta.

  2. says

    I’ve long thought that if we were going to start over from scratch that, given the number of states and territories, 3 letter abbreviations would work better.

  3. cartomancer says

    Surely the best solution would be to switch to three letter abbreviations?

    Though in England we don’t tend to worry about this problem. We use one or two letter district codes, but hardly anyone bothers to memorise them all – we just look them up when we need them. Learning them all is the sort of pub quiz trivia exercise you might embark on when you’ve finished learning all the county towns, dates of kings and queens, periodic table, African capital cities and home grounds of county cricket teams.

  4. EigenSprocketUK says

    Very good comedy routine there. But it’s noticeable how oddly dated it all seems when his story revolves around one woman who’s a shrew and a lush (for no apparent reason) and a group of men who are all issuing instructions, making decisions, and being funny.

  5. Friendly says

    Surely the best solution would be to switch to three letter abbreviations?

    I think that that would be very helpful, but it won’t happen. I hold out more hope for a similar solution to the current ridiculous state of airport designations — switching from three-letter to four-letter abbreviations — but even if that change is eventually made, I doubt that it will be made any time soon.

  6. says

    When it comes to two letter country codes for the internet, “first come, first served” isn’t always the way (e.g. IR for Iran, IE for Ireland). And many of them reflect the local language (e.g. CH for Switzerland, DE for Germany) while others don’t (JP for Japan instead of NH, CN for China because of Switzerland). And who came up with ZA for South Africa?

    Another interesting naming convention is the three letters used for airports. Most Canadian aurports begin with a Y (e.g. YVR for Vancouver), with a few exceptions, and is the only country which does this. Most other airport codes worldwide are named after local or historical people or places (e.g. ORD for Orchard Park in Chicago, JFK for New York). Often it related to where weather stations once were, often X in the US (e.g. LAX).

    North American radio and TV station call signs are a lot simpler to explain – C for Canada, X for Mexico, and K and W for the west and east of the US.

  7. Andrew G. says

    Internet country codes mostly just use the existing ISO standard for countries, with the exception of UK for historical reasons (it was too widely used to consider migrating to GB). ZA for South Africa is presumably from Afrikaans (“zuid” = south in Dutch).

  8. ivo says

    Just for the record: CH for Switzerland (used for web domains, car stickers etc.) doesn’t come from any local language but rather from the official latin name of the country, Confoederatio Helvetica, which has the advantage of not favouring any of the four recognized “national” languages (three of which are “official”). That’s the kind of tricks one has to use to hold together a federation of 26 wildly eterogeneous statelets.

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    The two-letter codes are useful to clear up ambiguity. For example, we can easily see that Ontario, CA is in California, not Canada.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    Surely the best solution would be to switch to three letter abbreviations?

    1) That wouldn’t get the job done. For example, it still would not differentiate Alabama from Alaska.
    2) From a coding perspective, it is wasteful. 26 x26 should be way more than enough to cover 50 states.

    As an alternative, states could be renamed to better make use of the alphabet. There are no state names beginning with B, E, J, Q, X,Y or Z and way too many beginning with M, N and W and others.

  11. snoeman says

    Friendly –

    “I think that that would be very helpful, but it won’t happen. I hold out more hope for a similar solution to the current ridiculous state of airport designations — switching from three-letter to four-letter abbreviations — but even if that change is eventually made, I doubt that it will be made any time soon.”

    Such a list already exists. The commonly used three-character airport codes you refer to are managed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). The list of four-character airport codes is maintained by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).
    My completely unsubstantiated and unasked-for guess as to why the IATA list is more commonly used is that the airlines prefer to use the list published by their own trade association instead of one maintained by the UN.

  12. jrkrideau says

    Every 5 maybe 10 number of years the International Postal Union gets together for about six months to determine all kinds of standards of services and delivery.

    The two-letter code was decided or at least ratified there. Probably back in the 1960s. Why a two-letter code? I don’t but quite possibly because it is faster to read/type two letters rather than three? Back then there was little or no mechanization in postal services so most mail would be sorted by hand and a standardized code is “very” good.

    I once counted the number of ways I could indicate the Provice of Quebec and I think I got up to about 5 or more. Now there is one, QC.

    There may also have been more mechanization on the horizon and QC is interpretable. Things like P.C, Que, or Quebec, or La Belle Province and so on are not machine coding friendly.

    Any country with states or provinces and which belongs to the IPU which it just about all the countries in the world have a two-letter code. and which belong to the IPU which it just about all the countries in the world. So basically the decision to have a 2-letter code is roughly equivalent of an article in a international treaty. Don’t expect the USA to go to a 2-letter code any time soon.

    @ 3 cartomancer
    Probably the reason you don’t have provincial/state codes was that none of the components of the mainland UK had a province/state status at the time. On the other hand they are a godsent for social scientist researchers (and marketers).

    Oh, there was an IPU conference in about 1990 and four of our negotiators got mugged on a beach in Rio de Janeiro’

  13. Silentbob says

    @ 11 Reginald Selkirk

    Surely the best solution would be to switch to three letter abbreviations?

    1) That wouldn’t get the job done. For example, it still would not differentiate Alabama from Alaska.

    Oh, for goodness sake, they don’t have to be first letters! If one’s ALB and another’s ALS, confusion resolved.

    As an alternative, states could be renamed to better make use of the alphabet.

    Now, you’re just taking the piss. You might as well say we can resolve the problem by calling them states “One” through “Fifty”.

  14. jrkrideau says

    @ Reginald Selkirk
    For a country with a large number of subunits, a 3-letter code looks better but I think that the USA is probably in the high range.

    Those codes came about from the needs of various postal services and they work fine, as far as I know for that purpose.Various states (nations) have used them for other things but the original and still most important one is the mail.

    I suspect the US Postal Service would scream loudly if you wanted them to reprogram and possibly even rebuild a lot of their mail handling machines. Oh and have to recode a lot of historical data if they wanted to maintain decent yearly statistics. Other users such as marketers, researchers, FedEX and others courier services are not likely to be happy either.

    I don’t know but probably those actual designations are part of an international agreement. (see my post above) that the USA via the US Postal Service has agreed to.

    I imagine that the US Congress could legislate 3-letter designators for internal use but they could not be legitimately used on mail outside the USA and incoming mail would have the old 2-letter code providing a confusing situation.

    This is an “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” situation. And I agree I seldom remember the codes for Mississipi vs Michigan and unless there were strict rules for how to select the second letter there could have been some better choices.

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