Cougars are ours and you can’t have them

Mountain Lion. Puma. Catamount. Lion of the Andes. Panther. All different names for the same thing: But unlike Death Cab for Cutie, none of those are authentically Washington. You see, out where I’m from, that critter you see above is called a cougar.

Although aware of the existence of those many alternatives, I actually went years thinking “cougar” is a relatively common term. It certainly helps that it has taken on a strong secondary connotation in pop culture. So imagine my astonishment when I took the New York Times’ Dialect Quiz about a year ago and discovered that the name is pretty much endemic to Washington:

nytimes cougar map

By way of at least partial explanation, I would like to note that students of Washington State University, located in Pullman, WA, are Cougars, and the team’s athletics program is similarly-named. (To give you an idea of the measure of their teams’ historic success, the Seahawks “Couged” the Super Bowl on Sunday.) But even that simply represents a cat and kitten problem: do Washingtonians call mountain lions cougars because of the school or is WSU the Cougars because of our particular regional appellation for the feline?

I honestly don’t know enough to answer the question without performing unnecessary and perhaps tedious research, but I do know one thing: Cougars are fiercely territorial, maintaining territories of up to 100 square miles. And that means, Brigham Young University, that we now have a problem: Your athletic program is also the Cougars, which would be fine — UW and UConn are both Huskies, Gonzaga and Yale are both Bulldogs, I survive in either state — if “cougar” were a word you actually used down there in Utah. As should be evident from the map I shared above, it’s not.

So here’s a suggestion, Utah: Pick a team name that more accurately reflects the character of your state, instead of stealing one from ours. How about the Saints? At least this time, appropriating a New Orleans brand would make some sense.


For the record, here’s the full list of options offered by the Times’ dialect quiz (note that I would have preferred “saber-toothed tiger”):

nytimes Cougar question

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