Theories on why it is NORTH and not Northern Idaho

Blog Post Image


I’m a big people watcher (not stalker like…okay, stalker like) and I make a game out of identifying tourists that come to North Idaho. Our area is a big draw for tourists that come to our region each year to enjoy the four-season outdoor recreation and festive towns like Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint.

Aside from the obvious indicators like out-of-state license plates and endless selfie poses by people walking through town, there are several unique ways to identify visitors.

Here are just a few of the more obvious ways to identify a visitor to North Idaho:

You know a visitor to North Idaho when… you see someone walk around in 4 different layers of camouflage when it is neither hunting season, nor are the temps worthy of more than two layers!

You know a visitor to North Idaho when…they refer to our two major highways as “The 90” and “The 95” as if they are a place on a map where people spend most of their time. I am guilty of this one, having come from Southern California where I found myself saying often, “I am stuck on ‘THE 5’ or ‘THE 101.” No, in North Idaho the highways are “HWY 90” and “HWY 95.”

You know a visitor to North Idaho when…they walk into one of our many sporting goods stores and run straight to the gun counter because they can’t remember when they last saw dozens of black rifles with 30 round mags out in the open!

You know a visitor to North Idaho when… they mispronounce Kootenai County and Lake Pend Oreille.

But nothing signifies a visitor more than this one…when they call North Idaho … “Northern” Idaho. Nails on a chalkboard, that one!

Why is it that North Idahoans do not refer to the area as “Northern” Idaho?

The question is not, “Is it North Idaho or Northern Idaho?” It is North Idaho! Just ask a local. Observe how local media and business signage refer to the area. Observe the name of the local community college, “North Idaho College.”

The local vernacular is clear…It is North Idaho!

Why is it ‘North Idaho” and not “Northern Idaho?”

We will come back to this question shortly.

But first, it is important to define what area we are talking about when we discuss North Idaho.

North Idaho is one of six regions in the State of Idaho as seen here:


The Panhandle consists of both North Idaho and North Central Idaho as seen here:


North Idaho consist of the five northern most counties of Benewah, Shoshone, Kootenai, Bonner, and Boundary, as seen here:


So, that is North Idaho in geographical terms.

So, back to our question of why locals refer to the region as North Idaho and not Northern Idaho?

On this topic, there is only speculation. There is no historical moment where some politician made a proclamation declaring “This area is henceforth North Idaho!”

Common sense would suggest because North Idaho is not a state, like North Dakota or North Carolina, it should be “Northern Idaho.”

From a grammar perspective, “Northern” annotates being a part of something larger, as in, “This is the northern part of the state of Idaho.”

“North” annotates an intentional separation, as in, “There is Idaho. And then there is North Idaho.”

Don’t get me wrong, North Idahoans love their state of Idaho and argue it is the best state in the country. But North Idahoans are even more proud of their part of the state.

Could it be that the title of “North Idaho” is more than just a geographical descriptor to locals?

Of the few theories out there as to why locals call it North Idaho, my favorite one is, “North Idahoans are too dumb to use long words, so they shorten Northern to North.” I’m good with that! Simple is good!

However, here are some theories worth considering when trying to understand why local vernacular is “North Idaho” and not “Northern Idaho.”

The first theory is one rooted in the region’s history.

North Idaho has a tradition of being the roughhewn part of Idaho where the culture has been forged by Native Americans, fur trappers, hunters, lumberjacks and miners, all of which still have a significant influence in the North Idaho culture. As such, North Idahoans throughout history have always been proud and protective of their mountain resources and rugged outdoor lifestyle.

Another theory that plays into North Idaho’s desire to be set a part is rooted in intra-state rivalry.

Braggin’ rights! Yep, there is a natural competition between those living in both the North and Southern parts of the state, as each see their areas as superior to the other.

The competitive culture starts with something as simple as early childhood, and then through high school, when the kids in competitive sports and activities travel North and South to compete with each other for state titles.

Other differences between North Idaho and Southern Idaho are quite stark in several significant ways:

North Idaho is heavily timbered with abundant lakes and rivers…Southern Idaho is high plains/desert and Ag land.

North Idaho is generally small towns with less population…Southern Idaho is where the “Big cities” and higher populations are.

North Idaho’s economy is based on natural resources and tourism…Southern Idaho’s economy is based on industry and agriculture.

North Idaho is known as the “Snow Belt” of the state…Southern Idaho is the “Banana Belt.”

North Idaho is on Pacific Daylight time…Southern Idaho is on Mountain Daylight Time.  

North Idaho in recent history is known as “Ultra-conservative”… Southern Idaho more politically neutral. More on this later.

North Idahoans take pride in those differences and in a competitive spirit have no problem having a title that makes them distinct from the rest of Idaho.

A third theory as to why North Idahoans see themselves a bit different from the rest of the state has to do with political Ideology.

As the country becomes more polarized politically, many who identify themselves as conservative refugees are fleeing progressive states and looking to relocate to more Conservative states where their values are better represented.

Idaho is one of those few states recognized as “Highly Conservative” as noted here by Gallup:


Those relocating to Idaho for conservative values, and there are many, are even looking for the more Conservative parts of the state, which leads them to North Idaho.

The North region is recognized as the most conservative part the state .  For example, in the Idaho Governor’s race of 2018, the statewide vote overwhelmingly elected a Republican Governor by a margin of 60% Republican to 40% Democrat as seen here:



Voters in Kootenai County (home of Coeur d’Alene, Hayden, and Post Falls) the largest population base in North Idaho, voted more conservative than the state average itself:  


However, compare that to Ada County (home of Boise, Meridian, and Eagle) the largest population base in Southern Idaho. Ada county voted less Conservative than the state average, and in fact, would have elected a Democrat governor. Boise City did, in fact, elect a Democrat Mayor during the same election:


Granted, Southern Idaho still has a very strong Conservative voting base overall. But, those in the North part of the state who are generally very protective of their Conservative values, see the Boise-metro area as the political torch bearer of the southern part of the state. As such, the larger metro politics give voters to the North another reason to distinguish themselves from the Southern part of the state.

In closing, whatever the theory, whether due to history, intra-state rivalries, political ideologies, or a combination of all three, there is an argument to be made that the “North Idaho” vernacular has a cultural connotation intended to distinguish itself in a light-hearted way from the rest of the state.

So, make no mistake about it…it is North Idaho!

Why that is, seems to be more a result of a proud and protective local culture than a poorly chosen geographic description.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the local vernacular may best indicate how one feels about the local culture known as…”North Idaho.”

Written by: Kory Martinelli Owner/Agent of The Martinelli Realty Team, LLC of Professional Realty Services Idaho