John Koontz, a linguist at the University of Colorado, has a website full of information about Siouan and Other Native American Languages, with a particularly interesting page about etymologies (including Kemosabe and Tonto, an entry that manages to cite both Aeschylus and the publication glitches of the Eastern Ojibwa-Chippewa-Ottawa Dictionary). The beginning of the Nebraska entry will give you an idea of the level of detail:

The state is named for the Platte River, which is called in Omaha-Ponca NiNbdhaska (=khe) ‘(the) Platte River’; literally ‘(the) Flatwater’, or in Ioway-Otoe N^iNbraske (or, more recently, -brahke or –brat^ke) [all with the same meaning].

My suspicion is that the actual source was Ioway-Otoe. This comes from two factors. First, during much of the later 1700s and 1800s, the Otoe were situated at the mouth of the Platte, in a position to present their own name for the stream to visitors. Second, Nebraska looks to me like a collapsed syllable spelling Ne-bras-ka, probably intended to represent what I would write as in the Lewis & Clark Phonetic Alphabet (LCPA) as Nee-BROSS-kay. That is, I suspect “ka” was intended to represent phonetic (NetSiouan) /ke/, not /ka/ (LCPA kay, not kah), and that would have to be the Ioway-Otoe version. My feeling is that real phonetic /ka/ would have been written “kar,” cf. “Mahar” (this really is a Lewis & Clark spelling) for UmaNhaN ‘Omaha’ or “kah.” The Dhegiha languages retain ska from *ska (LCPA skah) in final position while Ioway-Otoe converts it to ske (LCPA sk ay).

Once the word was written as a lump “Nebraska” and subjected to pronunciation by English speakers who hadn’t heard the original, the final syllable was changed to phonetic (NetSiouan) /ka/ (LCPA kah), or, actually, /k/ (LCPA kuh). In the same way the initial “ne” acquired a lax (short) e (LCPA neh) or schwa (LCPA nuh) pronunciation instead of i (LCPA ee) (long e in English terms) pronunciation, and the medial a in -bras- was fronted to the low front a of American cat (instead of the low central a of American father).

Of course, early popular transcriptions are incredibly imprecise, and I don’t have any information on the early history of the word in English. Maybe final “ka” did represent phonetic /ka/ (LCPA kah), in which case, it would have to be a Dhegiha form something like the Omaha-Ponca version that was the source. In fact, with this word any of the Dhegiha languages would produce pretty much the same effect on English ears. While Omaha-Ponca would seem the most likely suspect because the Omaha and Ponca were conveniently nearby, the Kansa and Osage were also originally both below the Platte along the Missouri and their languages are also plausible sources for the names of major tributaries upstream…

Via aldiboronti at Wordorigins.


  1. I’m disappointed to learn that “kemosabe” isn’t actually a play on “quien no sabe” after all. It was too good to be true…

  2. Andrew Dunbar says:

    I was interested that the author didn’t trace the etymology of “tonto”. So I did some googling and found a Portuguese article which states three potential sources of this word: http://usuarios.cultura.com.br/jmrezende/tontura.htm

  3. Another wordorigins thread that may be of interest – this one gives a link to an OED article and some books on the subject:

  4. Well, hell. Random Link took me here, and after replacing dead links with archived versions, I decided to see what Koontz had been up to lately, and learned that he had died in 2017:

    Mathematician by day and rock-and-roll photographer by night John Koontz, 63, was at the Larimer Lounge catching the Hot Apostles, one of his favorite bands, the evening he died. […]

    As a photographer, Koontz was hardly a household name, even in the underground music world he documented. But the images and videos he shot inspired bands in Denver’s underground scene to do their best work. Despite his outsized influence, Koontz was soft-spoken and shy. […]

    Born on August 4, 1953, in Annapolis, Maryland, Koontz grew up in Glenbury, Maryland; Detroit, Michigan; and Littleton, Colorado. […] As a teenager and then a college student earning his computer-science degree from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Koontz immersed himself in music, including that of the British Invasion, Howlin’ Wolf and Chuck Berry.

    After college, in the 1980s, Koontz earned a master’s degree in linguistics from CU Boulder. He went on to pursue a Ph.D. and conducted fieldwork on Siouan dialects, but eventually withdrew from the program, opting not to complete his work because, as a perfectionist, he didn’t believe it was good enough. Despite his self-appraisal, he turned his efforts into a respected, scholarly Omaha/Ponca dictionary.

    Soon Koontz took a job working as a mathematician for the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder. He served in that position for forty years, dedicating himself during his free time to the Front Range music scene. He did more than just shoot photographs for bands, though, and sometimes those little things made all the difference.

    He sounds like a truly decent man and a good linguist, and I’m sorry he felt compelled to leave the field (not that there’s anything wrong with being a rock-and-roll photographer).

  5. That’s really too bad. I remember seeing his name a lot in linguistics mailing lists back when, always knowledgeable and helpful.

  6. David Marjanović says:

    So Lewis & Clark were non-rhotic?

  7. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Wikipedia article actually goes into surprising detail about the history of English non-rhoticism.


    Both earlier and more transatlantic than I realised.
    So: Lewis and Clahk.

Speak Your Mind