The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) is having a contest to name our snowplows. They're taking submissions until Jan. 22 at dot.state.mn.us/nameasnowplow, with the winners announced in February. Sounds fun! But you may have a few questions about how this came about. I did. And here's what I discovered:
Q: Why is Minnesota doing this?
A: Because of Twitter, and because it's fun, and the winter days are dark and long. But mostly because of Twitter.
Recently, someone tweeted the news that Scotland gave their snowplows individual names, usually horrible puns. The tweet went viral and soon everyone was suggesting names for plows in their state.
Minnesota media types who have rearranged their optic nerves so one eyeball is always staring at Twitter seized on the idea, and before you could say, "How now brown plow," MnDOT had picked up the idea.
Q: Why do the Scots call their snowplows gritters?
A: Because they strew grit — rock salt, sand, tiny shards of stone. Some of them have plows, but not all. Our plows also deposit grit, but our nomenclature emphasizes the "getting rid of the snow" part. In Scotland it snows 15 to 20 days per year, so perhaps removal is less of an issue than traction.
Q: Why do the Scots name their plows?
A: It goes back to 2006, according to the BBC website. Transport Scotland (their MnDOT, except with a much thicker accent) held a contest for grade-schoolers to name the gritters. You'd think that would have been the end of it. A local story, at best.
Then came the internet. In 2016, the Scottish transport folks put up a map that showed gritter locations in real time, with their names. The map looks a bit absurd, with all those silly names rumbling around spreading good cheer. And rock salt.
Q: What were some of the submitted names?
A: Fred, Salty, Ice Destroyer and the Snow Buster are some of the less clever ones. But they get better: Sir Salter Scott; Penelope Gritstop; Gritney Spears; Grit Expectations; Meltin' John.
Some are quite regional, such as Chilly Connolly, likely a reference to Cyril Connolly, a renowned writer who died in 1974. What would be the Minnesota equivalent? F. Scott Gritzgerald?
Other regions in the United Kingdom also name their gritters. Yorkshire has Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, and Basil Salty, a nod to John Cleese's character in "Fawlty Towers." They're not quite as sharp in Essex, where the fleet has Grit Monster and Ice Buster. To its credit, Essex also has Alexander the Grit.
Q: Does MnDOT's website refer to Scotland as the inspiration for our state contest?
Q: Are Minnesotans required to participate?
A: Funny you should ask. Here's the fine print on the MnDOT site: "You are not obligated to participate in this contest and there are no consequences for failure to make a submission." Better enter anyway, just in case they change their mind.
Q: What's the best Scottish name, just so we don't duplicate it by accident?
A: That's a judgment call, but it's hard to beat this one: Itsy Bitsy Teeney Weeny Yellow Anti-Slip Machinery.
Can you top that, Minnesota? Get grttin' and send your suggestions to MnDOT.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858