How Ouisconsin Became Wisconsin

Because my parent’s parents migrated to Wisconsin during the nineteenth century, I’ve wondered for a very long time why did they migrate from New Hampshire and other places to the Midwest, and what does the place-name ‘Wisconsin’ mean. Slowly, I have uncovered the identity of the points of origin of my great-grandparents, and I am drawing closer to the reasons they migrated West. Yesterday, I began reading Rosemarie Ostler’s Founding Grammar, and I got one step closer to identifying the Wisconsin place-name.

Seems the name is French, which doesn’t surprise me as many places in the northern and Midwestern parts of the United States have French place names.  And many words in American English like ‘prairie’ and ‘piedmont’ are French.  I knew about the French influence because my Mom was born in Prairie du Sac, and Dad in Fon du Lac, and when I travel to Quebec, the officials use the French pronunciation of my name Dianne.   Other places with French names in Wisconsin are Racine and La Crosse. And I am sure to uncover more.

Ostler, a linguist and writer, begins her book with the story of Webster who created the first American dictionary using American words and the pronunciation of those words. Almost from the gitgo, the English of Americans  was not the English of the British.  Webster and others made sure to capture the vernacular as it was spoken.  The vernacular included many words the British never used such as ‘backwoods, Hickory, Possum, and others.’ American English also included many Indian, French, Dutch, Norwegian, African and Spanish words.

I been reading about language for a very long time, and was amazed when I realized how many words, like bronco, lasso, rodeo, arroyo, canyon, ranchero, coyote and puma, used in western regions are derived from Spanish. Because Arabs occupied Spain for so long, many of the original Spanish words, especially those that begin with “guad” are of Arab origin (‘wadi’ in the Middle East and referring to a ravine (French word) landform,because the Arabs were in mostly located in southern Spain and the Spanish who migrated to the Americas were mostly from Andalusia. Later migrants from Asia also brought many loan words, in use today.

I could go on and on.  I love this topic.  Perhaps I influenced my daughter who became a linguist, or my granddaughter who became an earth science teacher?  When she returned from California, I asked teacher granddaughter Amelia if she took lots of photos of the land forms she saw out West for her classes this fall. She sent a few of them.


19 thoughts on “How Ouisconsin Became Wisconsin

    • I know Herciles Poirot would b come angry if you thought he was French, however, the Belgian language was heavily influenced by the French and there are two distinct languages spoken in Belgium. (One of my maternal Dutch great-grandmothers was Belgian-French, hence my name.)


  1. I had no idea Wisconsin came from a French word. I just checked on Illinois and found that the name was given by French Canadians. What a surprise! I’d just assumed it was from a Native American tribe.


    • Actually, all of the Northern Territory and the land west of the Mississippi not claimed by the Spanish was claimed by France. Recall the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon. Only later did the notion of French Canada (a political entity) arise.

      I imagine the French, who lived on close terms with the Indians, used some of the same place names. However, a name like Fondulac or La Crosse is strictly French.


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