A Celebration of Native American Words

By Richard Lederer

Four centuries ago, the roots of Thanksgiving first took hold in our American soil. We living today commemorate the solemn dinner, back in the fall of 1621, shared by the Pilgrims of Plymouth, Mass., and the Wampanoag (“Dawnlanders”) Indians, the local tribe who generously pulled the fragile Pilgrim colony through their first winter and taught them how to plant corn.

Let’s talk turkey about our indigenous, Native American heritage. Suppose you had been one of the early explorers or settlers of North America. You would have found many things in your new land unknown to you. The handiest way of filling voids in your vocabulary would have been to ask the locals what words they used. The early colonists began borrowing words from friendly Native Americans almost from the moment of their first contact, and many of those names have remained in our everyday language:

In a letter that British explorer John Smith wrote home in 1608, he described a critter that the Virginia Algonquians (Powhatan) called a rahaughcum or an aroughcan, “he scratches with his hands.” Over the years the word was shortened and simplified to raccoon, one of the very first English words coined in America.

Pronouncing many of the Native American words was difficult for the early explorers and settlers. In many instances, they had to shorten and simplify the names. Identify the following animals from their Native American names: 

apossoum (Don’t play dead now.)

otchig (How much wood?)

segankw (What’s black and white and stinks all over?)

The hidden animals are: opossum (Powhatan Algonquian), woodchuck (from Ojibwa Algonquian for a weasel-like fisher), and skunk (Abenaki Algonquian). To this menagerie we may add the likes of  caribou (Micmac), chipmunk (Ojibwa), moose (Abenaki), and muskrat (Massachusett musquash).

You can expand the lexicon with the likes of food — squash (Narragansett), pecan (Ojibwa), hominy (Virginia Algonquian), pone (Delaware Algonquian), pemmican (Cree), and succotash (Narragansett) — and other ingredients of Native American life: moccasin (Narragansett), toboggan (Micmac Algonquian), tomahawk (Virginia Algonquian), wigwam (Abenaki), teepee (Dakota Siouan), caucus (Virginia Algonquian), powwow (Narragansett), wampum (Narragansett), bayou (Choctaw Muskogean), potlatch (Nootka), hogan (Navajo Athabascan), hickory (Virginia Algonquian), kayak (Inuit), parka (Aleut), totem (Ojibwa), sachem (Narragansett), squaw (Massachusett), papoose (Narragansett), and mugwump (Massachusett).

If you examine a map of the United States, you will realize how freely settlers used words of Indian origin to name the places where we live. Rivers, lakes, ponds, creeks, mountains, valleys, counties, towns, and cities as large as Chicago (from a Fox word that means “place that stinks of wild onions”) bear Native American names. Four of our five Great Lakes — Huron, Ontario, Michigan, and Erie — and twenty-five of our states have names borrowed from Native American words:

Alabama: name of a tribe in the Creek Confederacy, meaning “plant cutters”; Alaska: “mainland” (Aleut); Arizona: “having a little spring” (Pima); Arkansas: named for the Siouan Kansa tribe (Dhegiha Siouan); Connecticut: “place of the long tidal river” (Southern New England Algonquian);

Idaho: “enemy” (Kiowa-Apache Athabascan); Illinois: “he speaks the typical way” (Ottawa from Miami-Illinois); Iowa: “sleepy ones” (Santee Siouan); Kansas: named for the Siouan Kansa tribe (Dhegiha Siouan); Kentucky: “meadowland” (Wyandot Iroquoian);

Massachusetts: “great hillock place” (Massachusett); Michigan: “great water (Ojibwa); Minnesota: “milky blue river” (Dakota); Mississippi: “large river” (Ottawa); Missouri: “wood boat, dugout” (Miami-Illinois);

Nebraska: “flat water” (Omaha Siouan); North Dakota and South Dakota: “friendly”; “allies” (Dakota Siouan); Ohio: “great river” (Seneca Iroquoian); Oklahoma: “red people” (Choctaw);

Tennessee: “name of a Cherokee village”; Texas: “friends, allies” (Caddo); Utah: named after the tribe Ute, “high” (Western Apache); Wisconsin: “It lies red,” referring to the Wisconsin River (Miami-Illinois); Wyoming: “at the big river flat” (Munsee).

Some of our loveliest place names began life as Native American words — Susquehanna (Algonquian) , Shenandoah (Oneida), and Rappahannock (Delaware). Such names are the stuff of poetry. To the poet Walt Whitman, Monongahela (Unami Delaware) “rolls with venison richness upon the palate.” About the Lenape Indians William Penn wrote: “I know not a language spoken in Europe that hath words of more sweetness and greatness.” How fortunate we are that the poetry the First Peoples heard in the American landscape lives on in our American language.

Dr. Richard Lederer is the author of more than 50 books about language, history and humor, including his newest books, “A Treasury of Halloween Humor” and “A Treasury of Christmas Humor.” To order signed copies, explore his website, verbivore.com or write him at richardhlederer@gmail.com.