Wisconsin Name Origins & Misnomers!

Wisconsin will always be my favorite U.S state because it’s the first state that I lived in, and one in which I lived in three non-consecutive periods. It’s the state that made itself my home; it’s the place in which I found love. And it enjoys this gray area where its reputation precedes it, but it’s not quite so iconic that it won’t be misunderstood, misrepresented and mispronounced. So I thought I’d do a post today covering some misnomers and little-known facts about my home state.


  1. How did Wisconsin get its name?

There are several theories on this. Here’s what we do know: the first European to reach the Wisconsin River was the French explorer Jacques Marquette. He arrived in 1673 and in his journal he called the river Meskousing. The French later changed this to Ouisconsin, which was then Anglicized to Wisconsin in the 19th century and made the official spelling in 1845 by the Wisconsin Territory legislature.

But what does the name actually mean? It’s believed that Marquette derived the name from the native Algonquian-speaking tribes of the area. A popular theory is that it comes from the Miami word Meskonsing which translates to “It lies red”, in this case referring to the setting of the Wisconsin River as it flows through the reddish sandstone of the Dells. It’s a neat idea, but I tend to go with the other theory that posits that it’s actually an Ojibwa phrase meaning “Where the waters gather”. I learned this at the Paul Bunyan Logging Camp Museum when I got a private tour during its offseason in 2012. It’s always the definition I come back to, and in the fall of 2013 I submitted a portfolio of poems based on my experiences in Eau Claire that I called Where the Waters Gather.

  1. How do you pronounce Wisconsin?

A lot of people who aren’t from Wisconsin mistakenly emphasize the “c”, which always sounds super-preppy and stuck up. If you’re around Wisconsinites you want to avoid making the mistake of saying “WIS-KHAN-SIN” and instead adopt the smoother, more natural pronunciation of “WIS-GAN-SIN”. The “c” is actually more of a hard, low “g” that is not meant to be emphasized.

  1. How else can you avoid offending Wisconsinites with incorrect pronunciation?

These are the two big ones my roommates and I like to point out: Milwaukee (the state’s largest city) and Green Bay (home of the greatest franchise in all sports). Let’s start with the former. If you’re not from Wisconsin, there’s a good chance you’re pronouncing the “l”. You’re not meant to. A true Wisconsinite will tell you that in order to say the name correctly, the “l” has to be completely dropped. This is another instance, like with the name “Wisconsin” where the natives prefer the low, smooth sounds that don’t break up the flow of the word unnecessarily. The correct way is to say “MUH-WAH-KEE”.

As for the city of Green Bay, this one’s interesting. The Wisconsinites will say it as if it is one word. Even though it is not spelt that way, in your mind you must think of it as Greenbay, and say it thus. This occurs in British English too. For instance, we call Leicester “LES-TER” and I defy you to sit down with an American watching Jamie Vardy and co. for the first time and not have them demand why it’s not called “LEAK-EASTER”.

  1. Why is it called the Badger State?

Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with the animal, no matter what the chain-smoking Dementor sex-offender inside Bucky tells you. It’s actually all to do with lead mining. In the 1830s Wisconsinites traveled to nearby Galena, Illinois for work in the lead mines, making temporary homes out of caves they dug into the hillsides. The Wisconsinites were derisively nicknamed as “badgers” and their troglodytic burrows as “badger dens”. The Wisconsinites accepted this moniker however and decided that the best thing to do would be to own it, so they took the name back north with them and it later came to include everyone in the state.

  1. Where does the term Cheesehead come from?

Much like the origin of “badger”, the nickname “Cheesehead” was originally created as an insult by natives of Illinois. Given that Wisconsin is the largest producer of cheese in the U.S and perhaps the greatest cheesemaking land in the world (yep, it routinely beats out France in international competitions), you can see how our neighbors south of the border arrived at the name. It’s true that the term “Cheesehead” was used as an insult for the Dutch by the German soldiers during WW2 but I’m not sure if there’s a connection. I think the jocks of Illinois arrived at it independently.

What’s more interesting is that the first Cheesehead hat was actually worn at a Brewers game, not a Packer game. A guy from Milwaukee made the first one by cutting up his mom’s couch. Presumably this was before he got his skull caved in with a rolling-pin.

  1. How old is the chant “On, Wisconsin”?

It’s believed that the first person to yell “On, Wisconsin!” was Arthur Macarthur Jr during the Battle of Chattanooga in 1863.

  1. How did the Green Bay Packers get their name?

This one’s interesting. Despite what rival fans around the NFL may have burbled into your ear, it has absolutely nothing to do with laundry or fudge. The team was named for its initial sponsor, the Indian Packing Company. That’s where Curly Lambeau worked. In 1919 his then-employer gave him $500 for uniforms and equipment on the condition they would be named for their sponsor. A newspaper article at the time of the team’s formation actually referred to them as “The Indians”, but by the time the first game came around the nickname “Packers” had caught on. I think this is so interesting because the team could just have easily become The Green Bay Indians, especially given how that nickname is so popular with other sports franchises. A year after the team’s founding, the Indian Packing Company was purchased by the Acme Packing Company, and so when the team’s introduction to the NFL came around, they wore jerseys that read “Acme Packers” on them.




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