Have you ever wondered about the original meaning of your last name, or about the peculiar spelling of a river or a street name? People often strive to find the meanings behind words, and names can be particularly intriguing and mysterious. At times, we find strong evidence tracing a word’s origin and previous meanings (i.e., its etymology). But sometimes, if evidence is weak, false etymologies and urban legends may prevail. A word’s etymology can be particularly difficult to reconstruct if it belongs to an understudied language. For example, words from Native American Languages surround us in our everyday lives. They are historically understudied, and many are endangered or even extinct, yet their presence remains in many of the words we utter each day, often without our knowledge. Here we discuss possible etymologies for just a few of these words, gathered using the limited resources available.
You may have heard of the PA borough of Punxsatawney, known for its famous furry resident groundhog Punxsutawney Phil. The Lenâpé people are the original inhabitants of this borough, and it turns out that its name reflects that. The origin of the word Punxsutawney seems to be related to the two Lenâpé words punxo ‘full of sand flies’ and utaney ‘city, town,’ rendering ‘town full of sand flies’ – at least according to a late 19th century dictionary.,1 And if you live close to Western Pennsylvania, you’ve surely heard of the Allegheny River, yet the etymology of this river’s name remains rather muddy. A report by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission indicates that Allegheny means ’Stream of the Alligewi’ – an ancient Native American tribe.2 Other sources suggest that alleg likely descends from Lenâpé welhik, meaning ‘good, fine’, from which we can infer the meaning ‘good, fine, beautiful stream.’3 And if we’re keen observers of word structure, we can also notice that heny in Allegheny bears resemblance to part of another Pennsylvania river name: hanna in Susquehanna. Digging a bit further, we find that this part of the word is from Lenâpé hanne, meaning ‘stream, river.’ Since both Allegheny and Susquehanna refer to rivers, this bit of detective work allows us to infer with some confidence that both Allegheny and Susquehanna originated, in part, from the Lenâpé word for river.
Although we know something about hanna, the origin of the susque part of Susquehanna remains highly mysterious. Some sources argue that it relates to ‘Sasquesahanough, [the] name of an Iroquoian tribe in an unidentified Eastern Algonquian language,’4 while others discuss Lenâpé sisawehak ‘oysters’ or assisku ‘mud, clay’ as possible origins, rendering ‘oyster river’ or ‘muddy river.’1;5 Other explanations abound, including the Susquehanna River Basin Commission‘s suggestion that the Iroquious and the Algonkians had distinct names for the river, with its present day name being most closely related to the Algonkian nomenclature.2 To complicate matters, a professor by the name of A. L. Guse argues that Susquehanna is of Tockwock origin, and signifies the Brook-stream or the Spring-water-stream.”6
As the name Susquehanna illustrates quite clearly, there is much yet to be discovered about the etymologies of many every day words in English. To better understand where these words come from, we need more information, but how do we obtain it? One way language scientists are approaching the problem is by documenting and working to revitalize endangered languages. We hope this piece helps to show why this work is necessary if we want to understand our own language, and so many of the words we use each day.
The Susquehanna River
www.Punxhistory.org (accessed, Dec. 9, 2017).
1 Lenâpé -English Dictionary. From an anonymous MS. in the archives of the Moravian Church at Bethlehem, PA. (1888). D. G. Brinton & Rev. A. S. Anthony (Eds), pp. 119, 149, 132, 23.
2 Native American Waterbody and Place Names Withing the Susquehanna River Basin. (6447). S.S. Runkle, p. 84, 6.
3 The Composition of Indian Geographical Names illustrated from the Algonkian Languages. (5214) J. H. Trumbull, p. 57.
4 www.collinsdictionary.com (accessed, Nov 17, 2017).
5 Lenape Heritage in American Place Names. (6458) J. P. Rayapati. (accessed, Nov 17, 2017).
6 The Historical Record: A Monthly Publication devoted principally to the early history of wyoming valley and contiguous territory with notes