“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s…” So begins James Joyce’s punny metanovel Finnegans Wake. Although Joyce’s opening sentence refers to the River Liffey on its watery, lilting course through Dublin, the initial five words also reference a stark fact of human survival. Where we could, humans have lived near rivers. Place names in all the world’s languages reflect this fluvial adjacency.
The aboriginal languages of North America have a practical toponymy; their place names mean something locative and useful. We have inherited some of these names and will examine one Algonkian (or Algonquian) word, sipiy ‘river’ as it appears in surviving Canadian and American toponyms.
Mississippi, Michigan, Temagami, Mississauga
Of these, the most famous is Mississipi ‘big river.’ Compare Ojibwa misi ‘big’ + sipi ‘river.’ The root meaning big has reflexes of minor variance throughout the many individual languages of the Algonkian group, forms like mici, meici, mitchi and michi, hence the state of Michigan named after the lake. Lake Michigan takes it name from a Chippewan word meicigama that means ‘big lake,’ akin to Fox meikami ‘large lake.’ Many other Canadian and northern American place names contain the roots. Ontarians will know Temagami ‘deep lake,’ a geographical name that contains an Algonkian root some of whose forms are gam-, kam-, –gan or kan ‘lake.’ Residents of Toronto will know the city of Mississauga, named after an Ojibwa people who took their tribal name from a river in the Algoma country of northern Ontario, a river that emptied into Lake Huron and a river that had a relatively ‘big delta’ or ‘big outlet’ from Ojibwa misi ‘big + saug ‘delta, outlet.’
Algonkian Words in English
Algonkian is the largest family of languages native to North America. Before the European invasion, Algonkian languages like Ojibwa and Cree were spoken in what is now the eastern U.S., the southern half of Canada and parts of the western U.S.A.
Algonkian-speaking peoples were often the first native peoples that English and French speakers met in North America; consequently a large number of Algonkian words have entered French and English. The English often adopted Algonkian words to refer to things that they had never seen before. Many Algonkian words entered English: moose, skunk, chipmunk, raccoon, possum, persimmon, squash, hominy, squaw, papoose, wigwam, powwow, moccasin, wampum, tomahawk, woodchuck and toboggan. Some of the most important languages in this family are Cree, Ojibwa or Chippewa, Blackfoot and Lenape or Delaware.
The Hayes River as a Name? Yech!
In the Canadian contest between English and French place names on the one hand and aboriginal names on the other, common sense and historical inevitability (an admittedly dangerous phrase with a Nazi reek) dictate some of both. But, when one examines the earthy pragmatic monikers given to our places, native names often seem preferable. Consider the Hayes River, one of the longest rivers in Manitoba, still along most of its pristine northeasterly course flowing as it did hundreds of years ago, across the Canadian Shield’s boreal forest and then, as it reaches the great Bay, through boggy Hudsonian muskeg. For almost 200 years the Hayes River was the chief canoe route for fur traders between Lake Winnipeg from whose northern shore the river begins and York Factory.
The Hayes River was named after Sir James Hayes, one of the founding British moneybags of the Hudson’s Bay Company. How much, one wonders, of Sir James’ swag of obscene pelf was stolen from natives and starveling voyageurs? Most of it, I think. Today how many Canadians remember this puffed-up pustule of English rapacity? Close to zero. I had to look him up. So the river name is not only meaningless but also possibly repellent. The local Swampy Cree people had and have a dynamic tag for the Hayes river. Through some of its course, the Hayes bears a dark leaden hue, even its riparian mudbanks flaunting a blue-black colour. Its Cree name is Apihtisipiy ‘the bruised river.’ Wonderful naming! Such a label clearly designates a natural feature of the waterway. It does not celebrate a foreign, defunct robber baron of dubious morality.
Canada’s map yawns and groans with mosquito-like flurries of these Waspy, bureaucratic ‘I'm-rich-so-you'll-name-it-after-me’ place names. Why should we draw our place names from an historical thieves’ den like the Hudson’s Bay Company? Should we dull further the cartographical expanses of Canadian mappery, bland as most of it already is with boring place names. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s name appears more than 300 times on Canadian maps? Give us a break!
Have we Canadians not done with the nasoanal currying of favour? Do you want another 200 years of Canadians stooping down to lick the toe jam of subservience from blood-stained British toes? I don’t think so. I suggest we change many of the more tedious and disagreeable place names on our map and make them true Canadian place names.
More Sipiy Place Names
• Mistassibi River, Québec, is a reflex of the same roots that appear in Mississipi, but these are in the Montagnais language (an Algonkian tongue), mista ‘big + sibi ‘river.’
• The Manto Sipi Cree Nation in Manitoba take their name from a river. Manitou ‘God, spirit’ + sipi ‘river.’
• Carrot River, Saskatchewan is a translation of its Cree name oskatask sipiy = oskatask Cree ‘wild carrot’ + sipi ‘river.’
• The Ochichakkosipi First Nation take their name from a river.
o-chi-chak-ko ‘crane’ + sipi ‘river.’
• The Ockewi-Sipi first Nation of Manitoba take their name from a river.
ockewi ‘fisher’ + sipi ‘river.’ The fisher referred to here is “fisher… a large dark brown somewhat vulpine arboreal carnivorous mammal (Martes pennanti) that is related to the marten and the weasels and that is native to much of the forested northern half of No. America but is now extinct over much of its former range due to excessive hunting because of its valuable pelt.”
definition from Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002.
• Saskatchewan – The Canadian province took its name from a river. In Cree, the river’s name is Kisiskatchewani Sipi = kisiskat Cree ‘quick’ + chewani ‘flowing’ + sipi ‘river.’ Note how onomatopoeia operates in many languages, including English and Cree. Ki-saskat sounds quick. The sound of the word imitates its meaning. Chewani flows gently as a word for stream or river or current. In this word also, the sound imitates its basic sense, which is what the fancy literary word onomatopoeia means. Examples of English words that are onomatopoeic are bow-wow, cuckoo, buzz, clang, and croak.
And so an ancient Algonkian root persists through time, and a river runs through it.
© 2012 William Gordon Casselman
Any comments, corrections, emendations, additional word lore, orders for my books?
Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviews of my Book
Click bookcover for preview
A Great New Review of My Latest Book!
October 26, 2011
Welcome to the Enchanted Forest
By WB Johnston
This review is about Bill Casselman’s latest e-book about words: Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A Word Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems (Kindle Edition)
“Wade Davis, lately of National Geographic, once described each living language as “an old-growth forest of the human spirit.” Once you decide to enter the kleptomaniacal woods of our mother tongue, what you need is more than a tour guide. This is no Disney-fied ‘keep-your-hands-inside-the-car-at all-times’, point A to point B, clear-cutting mining of language. You, here, are in the hands of Sir William of Cassel, a genuine shaman modestly posing as a simple lover of words.
Leave it on your desk at work and trust that someone will riffle through it when you are out at lunch. Shamans are magicians of the highest order. The work of their hands and hearts is game-changing. Or, hey, put it on your Kindle and just feel comforted that you can wander back out into the forest with Bill even in the middle of a boring lecture.
(Casselman replies: Thank you so much, Dr. J., for the kudos.)
Jenni French of San Francisco, California writes on her blog “My Corner of the Universe” for March 19, 2011:
Casselman, Bill. Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik: A World Lover’s Guide to the Weirdest, Wackiest, and Wonkiest Lexical Gems. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2010.
And the author has quite a way with words, so I have found myself rereading many sentences in this book and slowing my progress through it.
My current favorite sentence is found in a discussion of dog hybrid breed names: “What a revolting concatenation of cutesiness and smarmy nomenclatorial treacle parading under the name of canine hybrid breed names” (19).
I’m sure I’ll have another favorite sentence in a day or two.
This book is just that good and just that entertaining.”
(Author Bill Casselman replies: “Thanks, Jenni!” )
Just a reminder that this book contains my ALL-NEW word essays, none of which are available anywhere else in print or online.
Cindy Lapeña on her blog “Creativity Unlimited” of July 19 ,2011, writes:
Posted by mimrlith in 365 Things to Look Forward to.
19. Starting a book
To a certified bibliophile like me, a.k.a. bookworm, one of the most exciting things to look forward to is to start reading a new book. In fact, sometimes the prospect of starting to read a new book is so exciting that I have to hurry to finish the book I am currently reading, just so I can start a new one.
If there’s one thing I can’t resist, it’s a book, especially if it promises to be a good one. Of course there are certain books I just won’t touch or be seen with, but at the risk of being hung by my thumbs by fans of such literature, I will not mention any genres in particular. . .
Seeing a book with a title that totally captivates me, like Where a Dobdob meets a Dikdik (yes, that is a book title!) has me so worked up, I just can’t wait to dive in. I imagine all sorts of deliciously fancifully outrageous words with a title like that. Is it obvious? I just love books on words. You won’t believe how many dictionaries I own. Or books on lexical oddities and other lexical explorations. Yes, I am a logophile of sorts. I love the new words I pick up from new books. I relish finding out the meanings of all manner of words and phrases and expressions. What could be more fun?”
(Replies author Bill Casselman: Please scroll to bottom of page or click here to link to a free seven-page preview of my book, Where a Dobdob Meets a Dikdik.
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Dear Mr. Casselman,
. . . I revisited the paraprosdokian page, and have finally quit laughing again at “Casselman’s Conclusion.” You were not unkind to the “profligate prof-lets.” During my years as an acquisitions editor, in rejection letters I often quoted Prof. Moses Hadas, classicist at Columbia University, who wrote a young scholar in response to having been sent the prof-let’s first book, “Thank you for sending me your book. I will waste no time reading it.”
I invite you to tour my site and select from the hundreds of word stories here.
To begin, click on the Word List banner below.
Then perhaps browse the site map with its links to every page of my website.