What’s in a Place Name?

You all know that Minnesotans talk funny. Of course, everybody talks funny from some other perspective, and Minnesotans are no funnier than, say, Texans or New Yorkers. But what most people don’t realize is that the funniest thing about Minnesotans is how they pronounce place names. This is especially true of French place names, owing to a deep-seated, subconscious resentment having something to do with the fact that the French were the first Europeans to live and work in this area.

I just learned a new example of a butchered place name:

Le Center, Minnesota

Look at that place name and pronounce it properly in French. Don’t worry if your French pronunciation is not great. Just give it a try.

OK, now, here’s how this place name is pronounced in Minnesotan:

Lee Center

(Lee as in Robert E. Lee.)

For years after I moved to Minnesota, I noticed that people had a lot to say about a lake somewhere called “Millacks.” The walleye in Millacks were of great concern. Tourism on Millacks was important to the economy. The governor went fishing on Millacks. Millacks, Millacks, Millacks. That’s all I heard about. (The walleye have apparently gotten better, and we don’t hear as much about that any more.)

In the meantime, I kept noticing on the map of Minnesota a big, giant lake called “Mille Lacs” that no one seemed to ever talk about.

My absolute favorite example of this is a lake out west, not far from Alexandria. This is a case where I actually needed to ask directions at one point and was unable to do so.

“Is this the road to Lac l’Homme Dieu?” I said to the person in the gas station, applying a not too heavy French accent….


“Lac l’Homme Dieu? I’m looking for Lac l’Homme Dieu.”

“Don’t know it,” the clerk said with no malice or snark. I had simply pronounced the name of this lake so incorrectly that it was impossible for me to be understood.

It turned out that the lake across the street was the lake I was looking for, known in Minnesota as “Lake Lahamadoo.”

Minnesotans also butcher German place names. New Prague rhymes with Don’t Brag. Let’s not even touch Native American place names. For now.

Up by the cabin, we have Pike Point. How do you think that is pronounced??? Try “Pike eeee.” Pikey Point.

Apparently, Biscay is pronounced “Biskee” (rhymes with “whiskey”).

Well, I suppose I shouldn’t talk, having grown up in All Benny (Albany), situated equidistant between Sken Ect Ady (Schenectady), Kada-ross (Kayaderosseras) and Cooks Acky (Coxsackie). Or having lived later pretty near Woo Stah (Worcester).

In the end, this is all cultural. Or, to be more exact, it all depends on what Schul/School you were shed ooled to go to.

Add your own funny place names below:


14 Responses to “What’s in a Place Name?”

  1. May 13th, 2009 at 6:44 am

    chanson says:

    It’s not just a Minnesota thing. Detroit is also a mis-pronounced French word. And Illinois is worse because it was originally a Native American word that got a French spelling, hence a couple of indirections for those attempting a reasonable pronunciation…

  2. May 13th, 2009 at 7:17 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    And then there’s Minneapolis, which we pronounce correctly, despite it being an unnatural chimera of a word.

  3. May 13th, 2009 at 7:30 am

    Mike Haubrich says:

    I have heard many people refer to Minneapolis and “Minionapolis.” mostly if they are from Texas or Oklahoma.

    Lousiana is rich in funnily pronounced French names, especially in New Orleans, possibly because of the Creole/Acadian heritage. But it also has some weird pronunciations from Native American place names. Try saying Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans without people laughing at you.

  4. May 13th, 2009 at 8:52 am

    Greg Laden says:

    Chow Pit Oool Ass?

  5. May 13th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    Lorenzo says:

    Not to be too picky but Le Center cannot properly be pronounced in French since it is not spelled properly (in French). It should be Le Centre.

  6. May 13th, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    John Swindle says:

    Here in Oregon, we are entertained, not so much by pronunciation, as by the names themselves, of prominent places. Having lived here only fifteen years, I am not yet privy to all the lore and nomenclature, but here’s a sampling:

    Jump Off Joe Creek
    Maggie’s Tit
    Negro Ben Mountain (cleaned up for published maps)
    Shoestring Road

    Many Oregon place names suggest that early Caucasian travelers had difficulty with survival in the wild, native culture, and spelling.

  7. May 13th, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    Mike Haubrich says:

    Greg, that is how I pronounced it the first time that I saw it,and they laughed. It’s “Chah-pah-tool-us.”

  8. May 13th, 2009 at 9:49 pm

    khan says:

    Maine: Calais pronounced: Callous
    Ohio: Russia pronounced: ROO shee
    Ohio: Newark pronounced: Nerk

    As a child I recall new TV news people trying to read city names during snow emergencies: Schenectady Canajoharie
    Ohio: Mississinewa


  9. May 14th, 2009 at 7:53 am

    Jusu says:

    There’s this city of Birmingham in Great Britain. It appears that the natives pronounce the name somewhat like “Broom”. Perhaps “Brougham”.

  10. May 14th, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    Keith Harwood says:

    South of England: St Osyth, pronounced Toosey.

    Daventry, pronounced Daintree, except on the BBC, who have (had?) a lot of transmitters there.

  11. May 15th, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    nora says:

    Millacks always baffled me too when I was growing up in Minnesota. Not only the pronunciation, but also why did everyone say *Lake* Mille Lacs? Lake Thousand-Lakes??? I was the kind of kid who asked questions like that on car trips.

    Now I live in Winston-Salem NC, and the really posh neighborhood in town is called ‘Byoona Vista.’ Don’t be fooled by the signs that say ‘Buena Vista.’

  12. May 16th, 2009 at 7:41 pm

    a daughter's mother says:

    I sat at a Dakota language table long enough to learn that our state name is a mispronunciation of two Dakota words, “M’NEE sho-TA ” pronounced in three syllables with accents on the capitalized parts. It really does translate to approximately sky-tinted or sky-blue water, just like we were taught, and as commemorated in those long-ago Hamms Beer commercial jingles. Shakopee (SHAHK-oh-pee) is an anglicized version of “shahk – PAY” which translates to six, named after the location where the sixth most important band set up their teepees when all the Dakota bands gathered together. It’s still used in the area in the naming of the area’s Little Six Casino, run by Dakotas, of course. Mankato (man-KAY-toe) was misnamed after the words “mah kah-TOE” which translates to blue earth. But if we called Mankato ‘Blue Earth’, what would Blue Earth call itself?

    By the way, for any purists and/or Dakota speakers out there, my spelling is for pronunciation by English speakers only, and bears little resemblance to the actual spelling, imposed on the language by missionaries, which includes frequent use of symbols in a font not on my keyboard. My apologies.

  13. May 17th, 2009 at 10:21 am

    a daughter's mother says:

    Oops- a misplaced hyphen makes a difference. “mah kah-TOE” should have the hyphen in the other position: mah-kah TOE.

  14. June 20th, 2010 at 8:23 am

    Actualites says:

    The history of france (the old france, not the new one) is built on religion, but now they want to kill religion (islam, christiannity). Sorry i’m french. Ask questions if you want i can answer them. sorry from the grammart.

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