What Does ‘Milwaukee’ Mean, Anyway?

Our city’s name has its roots in the words of the native languages of this area. But which language? And which words?

As Alice Cooper famously told Wayne Campbell in Wayne’s World, Milwaukee is an old Algonquin word meaning, “the Good Land.” While Cooper isn’t exactly wrong in his impromptu Milwaukee history lesson, the true origin of Milwaukee’s name remains something of a mystery.

The debate over the etymology of “Milwaukee” dates back to pioneer times in the city. Indeed, the place had many names during its earliest years as a trading post. The earliest references to the word date to the 1670s, with mentions of the “Melloki” river. In his 1946 history of the city, H. Russell Austin wrote that the place was called “Milwogues, Miskoumina, Melecki, Wilakie, Willawaky and Milwacky as the traders, missionaries and map makers attempt to write down the name from the dialects of the tribes.”

Even as the village that would become the city was founded, there was disagreement over the name. Most famously between the wards east and west of the river. East-siders called the village “Milwaukie,” while west-siders preferred “Milwaukee.”

Even after the city charter settled the spelling issue, there remained a curiosity about where the name had come from. In 1881, the Milwaukee Sentinel boldly declared that the matter was “definitely settled.” They wrote the accepted origin had been that it came from a native word meaning “rich and beautiful land,” a definition that had been favored over the theory that the name had been derived from the word for a kind of “wonder plant” that grew along the rivers and was used medicinally by the tribes in the area. But the paper now claimed the word came from a Potawatomi word, “Mahn-a-wauk,” meaning “council ground.” Legend had it that the area near the waters was used as a gathering place for the local tribes to converse peaceable, land where “everybody comes, but in which no body fights.”

But the issue was far from settled. Indeed, the “rich and beautiful land” (now recognized as “good land”) and the “council grounds” (since modified to “gather place by the waters”), are still the two most commonly accepted definitions for “Milwaukee.” Others, including “stinking river” and a Sioux word meaning “fire water” have also been proposed but, for reasons obvious even to the etymologically unenlightened, are mostly dismissed.

Dr. Margaret Noodin, director of the Electa Quinney Institute for American Indian Education at UW-Milwaukee, and a speaker of Anishinaabemowin, the language of the Ojibwe, Odawa and Potowatami, believes the word is of Anishinaabe origin: “Mino-akking,” which translates to “Good Land.”

“There are dialect variations, but all of these people speak a language that would understand ‘mino’ to mean ‘good’ and ‘aki’ to mean ‘land,'” Noodin says. “When the two morphemes are combined, a ‘w’ is added to make the word an easily recognized ‘minowaki.'” During early exploration and map-making it was common to see the “l” and “n” transposed because so many eastern Algonquian nations use the “l” where western nations use the “n.”

But this doesn’t quite close the book on the meaning of Milwaukee. Noodin does not dismiss the possibility of other or even multiple “true” origins of the name. “The other theories center on a translation of the word as part of the Meskwaki language,” she says. “The Meskwaki were also known as the Sac and Fox Nation and were present in the area prior to the arrival of the Anishinaabe at which time they moved west and south. Also Algonquian, the languages share many meanings so their term for ‘gathering place’ which is ‘mahn-a-waukee,’ is very similar sounding. It is very likely that this bustling cosmopolitan place had both names in use simultaneously.”

A good land for friendly gatherings? Sounds like a perfect translation.