29 July 2014

The unusual etymology of Des Moines, Iowa

The literal translation may be "shit-faced," as explained in the Des Moines Register:
Michael McCafferty, a visiting lecturer at Indiana University who has spent decades researching Algonquian languages, agrees with the commonly held notion that the "Moines" in Des Moines is a French derivation of Moingoana, an Indian tribe that once lived along the banks of the Des Moines River.

But he insists that rather than denoting the tribe's true identity, the name was a ribald joke offered up to French explorers Marquette and Jolliet in 1673 as a bit of razzing between competing Indian communities...

McCafferty based his conclusion on the work of another linguist, David Costa, who wrote an article on the etymology of a number of Miami-Illinois tribal names, Moingoana among them. Moingoana, McCafferty cites Costa, originates from the word "mooyiinkweena" -which translates, politely, to "the excrement-faces."
I learned this from a recent podcast of No Such Thing as a Fish (whose website seems to have no such thing as a search box...)


  1. Iowa also has an unusual origin (though not nearly as insulting). The Ioway were called that by a neighboring tribe who contacted white settlers first. It was their word for "sleepy". If I'm remembering my history lesson correctly, it's because they didn't like to stay up late partying the way the other tribe did and would feign being tired so they'd have an excuse to politely leave.

  2. Most Native American tribes are not really described by their own term for the tribe, but rather by what the members of another tribe called them, hence (translated into English) they are known as Shit-Faced, Flathead, Liver-Eaters and such. Actually most tribes called themselves "The People" or something like that in their native language.


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