Where Did the Name of the State Come From?

It is difficult to get two Missourians to agree on anything. Add three centuries, three (or four) language changes, the lack of native speakers of the Missouri Indian language when researchers began looking into the matter, and agreement on the origin of the word "Missouri" is impossible.

According to Virgil Vogel, in a 1960 Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, Missouri was the name the Illinois Indians used for the native people who lived on the Pekitanoui River (a term also of the Illinois language). In its French version, Missouri was recorded by Pere Marquette and other early explores who wrote of the town of the "ouemessourit"--referring to the people. The root of this word "messourit" has been traced to several early sources as meaning "canoe" in Illini Algonkian-various modifiers of big, wooden or dugout canoes have less evidence, although it does seem logical that canoes of lesser material wouldn't easily withstand the snags and surges of the wild Missouri.

What the natives actually called themselves, (and the river) is less sure. By the mid-1800s, nearly all "ouemessourit" natives had either been exterminated, killed by disease, or left to live with distant Oto relatives in southeast Nebraska. Oto and Missouri languages were related in much the same way as high and low German--very different dialects, but with enough common elements that when they merged due to the few speakers of either it became impossible to say exactly which language element belonged originally to which. According to Edwin James (1823) reported by Vogel, the Missouri's name for themselves was "Niutachi" or "Ne-o-ta-cha", a place name which survives as "Neodesha". Kansas and Oto speakers referred to the river as "ne-sho-ja" and "ne-su-ja", both of which implied thick, muddy, smoky or turbid water. One modern Osage speaker clarified that the related term "ni-o-sho" (think place name Neosho) actually meant smoky in the sense of foggy; that adjective could also be easily applied to the river, whose fog persists even today.

People interested in pursuing this further are referred to the article: "The Origin and Meaning of Missouri", Virgil J. Vogel. Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society, (St. Louis), vol. 16, no. 3. (April 1960): pp. 213-222.

How Is Missouri Pronounced?

Having disturbed the angels with the debate on the origin of the word Missouri, let's continue. How is "Missouri" correctly pronounced?

Well, there are six basic options: "Mizzoori", "Miss-oori", "Mizzoorah","Miss-oorah", "Mizzour-eh" and "Miss-ooreh". Webster's New Twentieth Century Unabridged Dictionary skirts the issue entirely. Geographical names are not given, and the entry for Missourian -mizzour'i an- is followed directly by one for mis-speak, which may not be entirely coincidental! In reality, only first three pronounciations are encountered with any frequency. "Miss-oorah" is just plain hard to say; "Mizzour-eh" and "Miss-ooreh" sound entirely like a person hedging their bets so as not to offend.

With no authentic guidance (see origin of "Missouri" above) a case can be made for any of the three pronounciations. Statistical studies have determined that more Missourians actually say "Mizzoori" than the other two variants. "Mizzoorah" is more common in rural central and northwestern Missouri (excluding Kansas City). Both city dwellers and Ozarkers seem to prefer the "i" ending, for differing reasons. "Miss-oori" seems to be an affectation of non-natives, tv and radio announcers, and teachers of eloclution, whose concept of the word comes from the written page and the rules of standard English, not an ear tuned in the cradle.

To make matters worse, the flagship state university (with a majority of students from the large cities, but located bang smack in Mizzoorah territory) avoids the issue entirely, proclaiming itself to be MU or "Mizzou". It has been my experience that the only time the state drowns in a virtual sea of "Mizzoorah" is at state-wide election time: both big-city politicians hoping to woo the outstate vote, and small-town politicians wishing to reflect their rural roots embrace the "-rah" ending, hoping, like the Mizzou Tigers, to turn their state's ending into a cheer for victory.

So, of the first three, there is no real "right or wrong" pronounciation for the name of Missouri--just have it your way, and say it with a smile!


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