Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Lexical Memorials to Native Americans Long Past

Native AmericansI have just uploaded an etymological glossary of the names of the US states. Take a look at it; it contains quite a few surprises. I found compiling it an adventure for several reasons. First, there are dozens if not hundreds of websites out their with lists of the origins of US state names, most of which are wildly inaccurate. Using authoritative sources, linguistic colleagues from my past life who specialize in North American native languages, provided far more provocative and intriguing etymologies than even those concocted by factually unbridled anonymous concocters of the past.

It was a bit perplexing and saddening, on the other hand, to discover how, as our European ancestors decimated the tribes and nations they found in the New World, they kept reminders of their victims in the names of tens of thousands of boroughs, towns, cities, counties, regions, states, mountains, rivers—the broad context of the rest of their lives and those of their offspring. You would think our predecessors would have wanted to forget that activity and remove any evidence of it that might reach us, their grandchildren. Perhaps it was unavoidable: too many things to name.

I am glad our forefathers did retain the native names of things because of the sheer beauty of words like Minnesota, Kiowa, Arapaho, Mississippi, Tallahassee in comparison with the names we brought with us: New London, North Sedgewick, New Brunswick, Dunkirk, St. Louis, St. George, named for places and people of little or no current relevance to our world.

I find it interesting to know that all those words beginning on miss- refers to something big (in Algonquin), those on minne- to water (from Dakota). When I first moved into my current Pennsylvania farm house, open fields spread beyond my back door. I often tried to imagine what my world would be if Lenape (Delaware) people still trudged occasionally across that property on their way to and from the hunt. I think I would have enjoyed the opportunity to speak with them and learn more of their mellifluous words and the fascinating syntax those words haunted.

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