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Freedonian was probably first used by Americans immediately after the American Revolution in place of the demonym "American". The term Freedonia was later popularized by the 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup, as a fictional country. Over time, however, the word has come to have a more generic meaning. It can be anything from a noun describing a plausible yet fictional country, to an adjective ("Freedonian") used to characterize a place like the Freedonia of Duck Soup. Because the Marx Brothers' Freedonia had so many qualities—autocracy, diminutiveness, and obscurity, to name but a few — a place can be described as "Freedonian" for having any one of these qualities.
In Vol. VI, Part IV, of the Medical Repository, 1803, pp. 449–50, Dr. Samuel Mitchill, wrote the following under the heading of "Medical and Philosophical News":
Proposal to the American literati, and to all the citizens of the United States, to employ the following names and epithets for the country and nation to which they belong; which, at the distance of 27 years from the declaration and of 20 years from the acknowledgment of their independence, are to this day destitute of proper geographical and political denominations, whereby they may be aptly distinguished from the other regions and peoples of the earth:
Fredon, the aggregate noun for the whole territory of the United States.
Fredonia, a noun of same import, for rhetorical and poetical use.
Fredonian, a sonorous name for 'a citizen of the United States'.
Frede, a short and colloquial name for 'a citizen of the United States'.
Fredish, an adjective to denote the relations and concerns of the United StatesExample. Fredon is probably better supplied with the materials of her own history than Britain, France, or any country in the world, and the reason is obvious, for the attention of the Fredonians was much sooner directed, after their settlement, to the collection and preservations of their facts and records than that of the Dutch and Irish. Hence it will happen that the events of Fredish history will be more minutely known and better understood than those of Russian, Turkish, or Arabic. And thereby the time will be noted carefully when a native of this land, on being asked who he is and whence he came, began to answer in one word that he is a Frede, instead of using the tedious circumlocution that he was "a citizen of the United States of America." And in the like manner notice will be taken of the association of Fredonia and Macedonia and Caledonia as a word equally potent and melodious in sound.
In the movie, tiny Freedonia ("Land of the Brave, and Free") is suffering from severe financial problems, and government leaders request a loan from wealthy widow Mrs. Teasdale to keep things afloat. The widow agrees on the condition that Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho Marx, take control and run the country. In the musical number that accompanies Firefly's first day in office, Groucho lets the audience know how things will run, singing lyrics such as "The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it/If you think this country's bad off now, just wait 'til I get through with it."
Firefly insults and angers Ambassador Trentino from the neighboring nation of Sylvania, which leads to war. Chico and Harpo Marx appear in the film as spies for Sylvania, and their trial for spying turns into an absurd musical number. Chico's character, Chicolini, doubles as Freedonia's secretary of war, while Harpo's character, Pinky becomes Firefly's chauffeur. Zeppo Marx plays Firefly's secretary.
When the film was first released, the village of Fredonia, New York complained about the possible negative impact the film might have on them. The Marx Brothers replied, in typical Marx fashion, "Change the name of your town. It is hurting our picture." The satirical depiction of Freedonia is said to have led Benito Mussolini to ban the film in Italy.
In the 1990s, the satirical magazine Spy pulled a practical joke on several members of the United States Congress. Impersonating a New York radio host (Henry Rose), the magazine successfully convinced several newcomers to Congress to comment on the "ethnic cleansing" in Freedonia, without their realizing that Freedonia was a fictional country. Nick Smith urged caution; James Talent supported action; Jay Inslee warned that inaction would be unacceptable. The story drew commentary elsewhere.
In the 1977 film Jabberwocky, Freedonia is one of the kingdoms conquered by the King Bruno the Questionable.
Duck Soup is used as in-joke amongst characters portrayed as knowledgeable about the film in a Season 3 episode of The West Wing, while another episode in Season 6 recalls the general plot details of Duck Soup. In "Enemies Foreign and Domestic", C.J. Cregg, Sam Seaborn, and Toby Ziegler are discussing the relevancy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in a post-Soviet world. C.J., being briefed by Sam on a number of countries she has to mention as possible new candidates for NATO membership, wonders why Freedonia's being left out of the mix. She goes on to reference Groucho Marx by singing "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" (which was his character in Animal Crackers) under her breath. When upbraided by Toby for not taking the briefing seriously, she asks why her attempt at humor is less valid than Sam's or his. Toby responds that he's heard her joke before, implying that he's seen Duck Soup. Determined that her Marx Brothers references be respected, she ends the sequences of references by offering to pay Toby $500 if he'll sing "Lydia the Tattooed Lady" (a song sung by J. Cheever Loophole (Groucho) in "At the Circus"). During Season 6, Freedonia popped up again when Congressman Matt Santos, then hoping to become the Democratic nominee for president, showed his anger with modern political debates. The question of the "situation in Freedonia" was asked of a candidate in a Senate debate, and after the candidate said he would look into it, there was no allowed time for the other candidates to challenge him about the existence of the country.
The American game publisher FASA's name was originally supposed to stand for "Freedonian Aeronautics and Space Administration." In their first publication (a set of starship deck plans for the game Traveller), the accompanying introduction was signed "Rufus T Firefly, Director". In the Sierra Entertainment PC game Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire, you get to meet some of the Marx brothers: Groucho Marx (Ali Fakir, the saurus seller), Harpo Marx (wandering around Shapeir's streets with a horn) and Chico Marx (the merchant Ali Chica). If you ask about Ali Chica after his disappearance, you are told that he went to Fredonia.
A United Kingdom game Democracy and Democracy 2 featured Freedonia as a playable country.
In the 2007 Doctor Who episode "The Shakespeare Code", the Doctor claims his companion Martha Jones is from Freedonia. He also claims this in the Doctor Who novel Sting of the Zygons. Although the usage may be intended simply as a plausible name for a country of which the listener (William Shakespeare in the former case) has not heard, it is specifically linked to Duck Soup in at least one official reference work.
"Freedonia" is sometimes used in political editorials and news stories to illustrate a point about another, real country. Sometimes the point being made is that a particular country is so small or remote as to be unknown to its readers. Other times, the term may negatively connote that a real country is run by an autocratic leader who is out of step with his or her people. Still other times the author may simply use "Freedonia" to mean "a fictitious country for the purposes of illustration".