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Why Is There A ‘Wau’ In So Many Wisconsin Place Names?

UW-Madison Professors Help Explain Linguistic Roots Of State's Names

Wausau welcome sign
Royalbroil (CC BY-SA 2.5)

The combination of letters “w-a-u” appears pretty frequently in the names of places around Wisconsin. Think of the cities of Wauwatosa or Milwaukee. Is that just coincidence? Or something more?

Many Wisconsin place names can trace their lineage to one — or several — languages spoken by Native Americans who were in the area at one time or another.

Judy Olson, of Bailey’s Harbor, submitted a question about this to WPR’s WHYsconsin project. So did Emily Brookhyser from Madison. Brookhyser asked specifically: “Where does the word ‘wau’ in a lot of Wisconsin city names come from? For example, Wausau, Waukesha and Waunakee all start with ‘wau,’ and I’m wondering what language that comes from and what it means.”

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The answer turned out to be more complex and rich than many might have thought. A pair of University of Wisconsin-Madison professors shared some helpful ways to think about these place names and talked about the value of indigenous languages today.

One of them is Monica Macaulay, a professor of language sciences, who is affiliated faculty with the university’s American Indian Studies Program, and also works with the Menominee and their language revitalization and reclamation programs. The other is Brian McInnes, an associate professor of civil society and community studies in the UW-Madison’s School of Human Ecology. McInnes is a native Ojibwe speaker, enrolled member of the Ojibwe nation and a descendant of the Wisconsin Potawatomi tribe.

These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity.

One State, Vibrant Language Diversity

Brian McInnes: In northern parts of the state, we certainly have Ojibwe widely spoken. But also Menominee, one of our cousin languages. Potawatomi, or Bodéwadmi, is also a very dynamic and important language in our state.

But then we also have languages from other indigenous nations, such as the Ho-Chunk people. And we have Oneida language, which is also a very significant and historic language in Wisconsin. We’re quite fortunate to have that kind of dynamic vibrancy in our state.

Monica Macaulay: Menominee, Potawatomi and Ojibwe all come from same language family — you could think of them like Indo-European languages. But then Ho-Chunk is Siouan, Oneida is Iroquoian — they’re completely unrelated families.

All The Same ‘Wau’ — Or Not?

MM: Virgil (J.) Vogel did a lot of the work for us in his book, “Indian Names on Wisconsin’s Map.”

Basically, the answer to the question is: There’s no relationship. It’s just chance they start with “wau.” But in each case, there is a pretty clear etymology for it. Wausau, for example, comes from Ojibwe word for “far away,” or “distance.”

BM: I would say, “wau-suh.”

MM: And Waunakee — what Vogel says is it’s possibly from the word for “I inhabit a place in peace.”

BM: That could be a meaning. Or it could be a place where someone got lost, too. “Getting lost on one’s journey upon the earth.” Who knows? I think that’s one of the interesting things: Looking at reconstructing a meaning and a word from some map, and by someone’s iteration or version of that.

Often in Algonquin language, in particular, the “wau” can refer to flashes of white or brightness. So when you hear Wauwatosa, it makes you think of old Potawatomi word for “firefly.” Especially with the reduplicated — the double “wau,” refers to something which might be flashing or intermittent in its frequency. Something bright, some kind of light, beautiful effervescence coming off of something. To have that meaning or association, would be a very positive kind of meaning, and most welcome.

MM: Waukesha probably comes from the Potawatomi word for “fox.” Something like “wauk-she.”

BM: In Ojibwe, that would be “wau-bush.”

Shared Legacy Of Place Names

BM: We know for hundreds of years, different tribal groups have made Wisconsin their home or been through Wisconsin. Even the legacy of their presence, their history in the state, may be reflected in some of these place names.

Think of Madison and our wonderful four lakes here: Wingra, “place of many ducks,” the Ho-Chunk name. Monona has been rumored to be an Algonquin name. We really had to think about that before finally being able to derive “lake of beautiful appearing water.” Mendota may be derived from a Dakota name.

These place names refer as much to the present, contemporary uses of these places or ways that we know them as to the historic occupations of tribal groups.

Talking About Indigenous Language In Present And Future Tense

MM: One of the most moving things I ever heard was, at a meeting, there was a young woman whose language had not been spoken for a while, but she was working to bring it back. When she heard word “extinct,” she said it made her feel horrible. She stood there, and just said, “I am not extinct.” It’s an incredibly important piece of people’s identity. That’s why it’s important to keep them going.

BM: Learning indigenous languages, promoting indigenous languages — there really could be nothing more quintessentially American than that. That is our original shared history. Something w can all be proud of, and can all learn and celebrate together.

This story came from an audience question as part of the WHYsconsin project. Submit your question at wpr.org/WHYsconsin and we might answer it in a future story.

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