Toponymic confusion revisited


The local authorities in the town of Webster, Massachusetts are planning to change the road signs that lead to the local lake. The sign leads to lake “Chargoggagoggmanchaoggagoggchaubunaguhgamaugg”, but it should actually lead to “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg”.

According to the Guiness Book of Records, the name of the lake is the fifth longest word in the world and the longest lake name anywhere. The name originates from the local language of the Nipmuc indians. Freely translated, the name means “You fish on your side, I fish on my side and nobody fishes in the middle of the lake”. A nice example of native Amercican divide and conquer

The interesting bit, however, is that there are 26 spelling variations of the name in the US Geographic Names System and that none of these variations match the actual road signs.

Naturally, the authorities could spend time and money to find out how these mistakes have been brought about. I think, however, that an investment in standardisation would be a much wiser choice.

This example is of course rather extraordinary and the discriminating value of “Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg” is quite high. But different spelling of geographical items will eventually lead to toponymic confusion (see my blogpost earlier this year). Apparently, the inhabitants of Webster call the lake “Lake Webster”. I wonder whether that has got something to do with the pronunciation of Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg…?

3 Responses to “Toponymic confusion revisited”

  • The reasons for variation no doubt relate to the fact that the original name came from an oral society, and has been recorded phonetically different ways over time.

    Think about early days of European contact in North America – there were English, French, and Dutch, (writing down things phonetically the way they made sense in their mother tongue) and there may have been some dialect variation in how different people from the same Native American group were pronouncing the words.

    An extreme example of this is: Ojibway, Ojibwe, Ojibway, Chippewa, Chippeway. It’s easy to see the link between the first three, but if you think of the last two as O’Chippewa, or O’Chippeway then it seems more reasonable.

    All that aside, I think my favorite indigenous word is: Humuhumunukunukuapua’a (or ‘pig fish’, the state fish of Hawaii)

  • This brings back fond memories of learning the name of our local village:


    Or Llanfair P.G for the tourists…

    Great post Holger!

  • And if you don’t believe me…[img][/img]

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