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Hail to our symbols of greatness

Recently and with little fanfare, the Massachusetts Legislature named Taj Mahal the state's official blues artist. I am no music aficionado, but I had heard of Taj Mahal from my days as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Taj Mahal grew up in West Springfield and went on to win two Grammy awards in over 40 years of making music.

What caught my attention about Taj Mahal was not so much his distinguished career but the fact that the Legislature continues its practice of naming official symbols of this state. I did a little digging and found, to my amazement, that there are scores of these official symbols, many of which have ties right here.

There is, of course, the official state historical rock in Plymouth, although historians have said the Pilgrims never landed anywhere near the rock. There is also the state building rock and monument stone, which is granite and recognizes the contributions of Quincy. Quincy granite was used to build the Washington Monument.

We have official state symbols for food and beverages. There is the official cookie, the Toll House cookie, which I am proud to say was first concocted in my hometown, Whitman. There is also the official state beverage, cranberry juice, with its links to the bogs that dot our landscape in Southeastern Massachusetts. Perhaps a little redundant, there is also an official state berry, which is the cranberry (vaccinium macrocarpon, to be precise). It took two years of lobbying to get this official symbol passed by the Legislature.

My favorite symbol is the official state heroine, Deborah Samson of Plympton. Samson disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the American revolutionary army in 1778. Using the name Robert Shirtliffe, Samson served for three years and was wounded twice. Eventually she was detected and was brought before General George Washington, who gave her an honorable discharge and a sum of money to return home. After the war, Samson married a man named Benjamin Gannett of Sharon, and had three children. During Washington's presidency she was summoned to the capital, where she was granted a pension, some land, and the thanks of a grateful nation.

But the most important official state symbol with ties to this region is the name Massachusetts. Although there is some dispute about the origins of our state name, most historians say that Indians who lived in the Great Blue Hill region of Milton called the area ''at or about the Great Hill," and words such as ''Messatossec" (''Great-Hills-Mouth") or ''massa" (great) and ''wachusett" (''mountain place") are often viewed as the foundation of our state's name.

Massachusetts now has 46 official state symbols, and it is likely that more legislation will be passed to recognize some facet of our state's heritage. Looking at the list, which is put out by the secretary of state's office, there is a tendency to smile at the various symbols that have been granted official status. There is the official state folk dance (square dancing), the official state cat (the tabby), and the official state polka (''Say Hello to Someone from Massachusetts").

What the Legislature is doing by continuing this practice of naming official symbols is not unique. Most states have their own laundry list of what makes them different. Taking pride in past accomplishments, heroes and heroines, critical natural resources, and the character of life in the Commonwealth is a way of saying that we here in Massachusetts are special and that this is a special place to live.

As the official state song says, ''All Hail to Massachusetts."

Michael Kryzanek of Whitman is a political science professor at Bridgewater State College. He can be reached at mkryzanek@bridgew.edu.

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