Perseverance carved out Yooper’s place in dictionary

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Opening a package in 2011, an editor at Merriam-Webster slowly realized what it contained — a bribe. What she didn’t know: The briber was a county prosecutor.

District Judge Steve Parks holds a Merriam-Webster dictionary Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in his Escanaba, Michigan courtroom.  (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)

The parcel contained a keychain, refrigerator magnet and chocolate bar, all bearing the word “Yooper.”

For 12 years, package-sender Steve Parks had tried to get Yooper into the dictionary. Clearly, the man was getting desperate.

He was ultimately successful and the word, which means a native or inhabitant of the Upper Peninsula, joined the lexicon last year, ensconced between “yore” and “yoo-hoo.”

The way such an unassuming word made the big time, ascending to the premier dictionary of the U.S., is quite a story, residents say. It involves blandishments, false identities, wild tales, Scrabble, and enough perseverance to fill the peninsula.

“It was really quite a ride,” said Parks, 60, who now is a district judge in the U.P.’s Delta County.

Residents, past and present, are tickled to be included in such an august tome.

Janet Stupak, a librarian in Springfield, Mass., who grew up in the Upper Peninsula, said she has been teaching co-workers and friends about the word for years. Now she can just point them to the dictionary.

“I’m totally loving this,” she said.

The story begins in the U.P., Naubinway, to be exact, where Parks was playing Scrabble in 2002.

He used the word “Yooper” and, after a friend objected, Parks was stunned when he couldn’t find it in the dictionary. The term was common in Michigan, he said. Its usage dates to 1977, said lexicographers.

The puckish Parks thought it was an oversight that would be easy enough to fix.

He wrote to Merriam-Webster in 2002 objecting to the absence of Yooper in a dictionary that had swear words and “big words no one uses.”

He was told that while Yooper may be popular in Michigan, it wasn’t common anywhere else. He wrote again the following year but received the same reply. Try again in five or 10 years, harrumphed the dictionary.

‘Yooper’ usage documented

When Parks resumed his campaign in 2010, the Merriam-Webster worker he had dealt with was no longer with the company. His new contact was Associate Editor Emily Brewster.

Brewster, who grew up in Pennsylvania and lives in Massachusetts, had never heard of a Yooper.

She searched and found the word in newspapers in Florida, California and New York, and in national magazines Harper’s and the New Republic.

How conservative Yoopers ended up in the liberal New Republic sounds like it could be a story in itself.

The word seemed to be shedding its regional bonds and moving toward general discourse, Brewster told Parks. She encouraged him to keep at it.

“It was a good candidate,” she said.

Whenever Parks came across usages of the word, he contacted Brewster.

Rush Limbaugh said it on a radio broadcast. Stephen King wrote it in his novel “Duma Key.” The Boston Globe used it as a clue in a crossword puzzle, which Parks’ mother clipped and mailed to him.

Parks also sent Brewster items with Yooper on them: mug, postcard, T-shirt, more chocolate. He said he wasn’t trying to bribe the editor, but did offer to make her an honorary citizen of the Upper Peninsula.

Brewster, who said her work cubicle never looked so good, wasn’t sure what to make of the titular title.

“I haven’t found a way to cash that in,” she chuckled.

Parks regaled Brewster with tall tales of U.P. characters who ate pasties and played mumblety-peg, where one player puts a knife in the ground and the other retrieves it with his mouth.

One Yooper nearly lopped off his leg with a chainsaw. Another dealt with the travails of a backed-up septic tank.

A third, a sarcastic lawyer, told Parks he had as much of a chance of getting Yooper in the dictionary as swimming across Lake Superior.

Parks wrote under pen names, Clayton and then Claymore Parks. Claymore was the dutiful son carrying on the quest of his late father, who was a member of the elite airborne unit, the Super Duper Yooper Troopers.

Word declared dictionary worthy

In 2013 Merriam-Webster’s director of defining rendered his judgment: Yooper was a worthy word. It would be in the company’s Collegiate Dictionary the following year.

Brewster relayed the good news to Claymore Parks.

One week later Brewster was mildly alarmed to receive a call from a county prosecutor in the U.P. It was Steve Parks confessing there was no Claymore or Clayton or Clay-anything.

Parks, a private practice lawyer when his quest began in 2002, became a prosecutor in 2005 and district judge last year. He changes jobs as often as nom de plumes, but the jobs are real.

“They allowed me to take on a different persona,” he said about the pseudonyms.

Yoopers celebrated their entry into the dictionary by holding a ceremony at the U.P State Fair in Escanaba last year.

Gov. Rick Snyder attended the event, held next to the fairgrounds’ Barn Yard Review Stage. Brewster was there, too.

News of the word’s inclusion traveled far and wide. Parks’ brother-in-law called from California to say it was trending on Facebook, then had to explain what the meaning of “trending on Facebook.”

While Parks had fun with his quest, its aim was serious.

An Owosso native who moved to the U.P. in 1985, he’s proud to be a Yooper. His dad was one, too.

“The word has meaning to people up here,” he said.

The entire peninsula feels like home to him. He loves everything about it: the land and lakes, the hunting and fishing, the distinct identity and culture. Residents in the rural outback are resilient, independent, hard-working and community minded, he said.

While Parks succeeded in getting Yooper into the dictionary, he still can’t use it in Scrabble.

As a proper noun, it’s ineligible.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell