She is hardly the only person to use the locution, but Rachel Maddow repeatedly refers to a state as “The Great State of [wherever].” (I haven’t caught her referring to “The Great Commonwealth of [wherever],” but, then again, I don’t know why Arizona is a state, and Massachusetts is a commonwealth. What is a commonwealth anyway? For what it’s worth, the official seal of Pennsylvania refers to “The State of Pennsylvania,” but the governor’s seal carries a “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania” label. Crazy, but you can look it up!)
Clearly, “The Great State” is intended as a kind of honorific, though it isn’t clear why Ms. Maddow (or anyone else) needs to be so deferential toward a state. Moreover, she seems to be indiscriminate in her usage; she will talk about both “The Great State of California” and “The Great State of Mississippi.” One can perhaps make a case for California’s being a great state, but the corresponding case for Mississippi is, shall we say, weak. Perhaps the objective is to avoid giving Fox News a reason to claim that one state or another—probably one with a Republican governor—was defamed on her show. As for me, if I ever speak about “The Great State of Mississippi,” it is likely that I am being ironic.
I find this “great state” business tiresome. Perhaps at the present moment, however, we have a legitimate way to distinguish great states from not-so-great states. New York, with its Democratic governor who is clearly concerned about the welfare of the state’s people generally and of the well-being of its medical facilities and staffs particularly, would seem to argue, along with other facts, for speaking of “The Great State of New York.” Georgia, with its Republican governor who is eager to resume “normal” economic activity without any cause to believe that coronavirus infections will not massively increase, probably does not deserve to be called “The Great State of Georgia.”