Dave Wilton at has a Big List post on the state name Illinois featuring the overturning of a false etymology that was accepted for centuries:

The Illinois people were an informal confederation of a dozen or so Algonquian tribes who lived in the Mississippi Valley, stretching from present-day Michigan to Arkansas, including what is now the state of Illinois. The tribes included the Cahokia, Kaskaskia, Michigamea, Peoria, and Tamaroa, among others. Their name for themselves is irenweewa (he who speaks normally). In Ojibwa, that name is rendered as ilinwe, or in the plural ilenwek.

The French, who in the late seventeenth century made contact with the Ojibwa, rendered the -we ending as ‑ois, using the conventions of seventeenth-century French spelling to make it Illinois. Subsequent to European contact, the Illinois people were decimated by disease, war, and forced relocation. Today, the primary organization of the people is the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma.

The name Illinois appears in English by the end of the seventeenth century. This translation of an anonymous account of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle’s expeditions is from 1698 and mentions the Illinois people:

[…] He sent likewise fifteen Men further into the Country, with orders to endeavour to find out the Illinois, and left his Fort of Niagara, and fifteen Men under my command. One of the Recollects contineud [sic] with us.

And Louis Hennepin’s A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America gives an incorrect etymology for the name Illinois, claiming it meant “accomplished men.” This etymology has been thoroughly discounted, but it was accepted as correct for several centuries, and one will often still see it on websites and in popular press accounts of the word’s origin.

See the link for more, including a quote from Hennepin and the full version of the first quote. I myself am curious about how the word irenweewa ‘he who speaks normally’ works morphologically, if anyone knows.


  1. In what varieties of 17th century French was -oi- pronounced /we/? I thought that it had all become /wa/ by that time.

  2. Simplicissimus says

    Pronouncing -oi- as /we/ survives, for instance, in certain North American dialects of French, most famously in Joual (traditional working-class Montreal French).

  3. The morphology was given somewhat tentatively by the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (1987; this edition had Ives Goddard as consultant, so it should be pretty solid on Algonquian):

    < French, earlier Eriniouai, Ilinoués, etc., from an unidentified Algonquian language, apparently literally, “one who sounds normal” (i.e., “a person who speaks an Algonquian language”), equivalent to the (unattested) Proto-Algonquian elements *elen- “ordinary” + *-we· “make sound”

    David Costa did more work on the Miami-Illinois language; here’s a more technical discussion from him. Costa is clearly the source used by the OED (2019):

    (originally) < North American French (Mississippi Valley) Illinois, †Ilinois, †Islinois (1670 or earlier), ultimately < Illinois irenȣeȣa (/irenweːwa/) he speaks Illinois, lit. ‘he speaks the ordinary language’, via another Algonquian language (probably Ojibwa (Ottawa)), apparently with subsequent reinterpretation of the final syllable as French -ois (see -ese suffix)

  4. This will be acceptable here, as we continue to think of ourselves as the people who speak normally.

  5. Thanks, ktschwarz!

  6. David Costa, who wrote the definitive reference on the language, analyzes the history of the name in great detail here (p.9). By his analysis, that was the Miami exonym for the Illinois, transmitted to French via Ottawa. In Illinois, the form would have been *irenwe·wa. Ojibwe doesn’t have the final -wa and has /l/ corresponding to the older Illinois /r/ (which since changed to /l/ as well), and hence an Ojibwe variety was an intermediary.

    The word irenwe·wa is parsed eren- ‘ordinary, regular’ + we· ‘speak’ + -wa ‘3sg’; it can be used as a verb ‘he speaks normally’ or as an agentive noun ‘one who speaks normally’.

    (The initial *e becomes i because, I believe, it is a short vowel in a “weak” syllable; in M-I that means an odd-numbered syllable, counting from the beginning of a word or from after a syllable containing a long vowel. In Ojibwe the PA *e became i everywhere.)

  7. David Marjanović says

    Present company will be familiar with this, but just in case: · is the Americanist marker of vowel length.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    Back in 2005, the musician Sufjan Stephens released a song entitled “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!”* Alas, he did not incorporate the title into the actual lyrics, so there are no potentially interesting rhyme choices.

    *This was on his concept album about the state of Illinois, which followed his concept album about the state of Michigan. While these were touted as the first two entries in a 50-state series, no third such project has yet been released lo these many years later.

  9. For those not drenched in rock history, the inspiration for the title is Slade’s 1973 “Cum On Feel the Noize” (Wikipedia, YouTube). And I don’ wanna hear about no Quiet Riot.

  10. J.W. Brewer says

    I am not much of a Sladologist, but I believe that the totally bonkers-looking outfit being worn by the lead guitarist Dave Hill in that youtube clip hat linked to is what the cognoscenti call the “Metal Nun” costume.

  11. BTW, the linked article on Illinois also has detailed discussions of two other Algonquian etymologies, Mississippi, from Ottawa missisi·pi ‘the large river’; and Peoria, probably Miami-Illinois peewaareewa ‘dreamer (in contact with a manitou)’.

    (Apologies for the disparate orthographies).

  12. J.W. Brewer : My favourite Sufjan Stevens song is probably that one, if not my favourite song in general.

  13. J.W. Brewer says

    A relevant wikipedia page says ‘The name “Peoria” derives from their autonym, or name for themselves in the Illinois language, peewaareewa (modern pronunciation peewaalia). Originally it meant, “Comes carrying a pack on his back.”‘

    The proposer of the “dreamer” etymology in the article linked asserts that that was the traditional account which now “must be ruled out.” That proposal is from 2007, so it may still not have swept all rival explanations out of its way. I must say that I am not impressed by the proposer’s self-assurance that the French Jesuits who first encountered them couldn’t figure out the true etymology because they had no comprehension that non-Christian peoples might have non-Christian worldviews and thus words for concepts or practices that Christianity would think false.

  14. The Black Hawk War, Or, How to Demolish an Entire Civilization and Still Feel Good About…
    (that’s name of a song by Sufjan)

  15. McCafferty argues against the ‘carries on his back’ etymology based on phonological grounds. The argument against the French translating ‘dreamer’ is indeed tenuous, but it’s not what he rests his etymology on.

    Now, McCafferty’s etymology of “Des Moines” is not likely to be touted by that fair city’s public officials.

  16. David Marjanović says

    So, what is “its unusual meaning in the Miami-Illinois language”?

  17. “Shit-faced”, literally.

    (The pdf has the whole story.)

  18. It should be noted that the Shit-faced were not closely related to les Puants

    Makes you appreciate endonyms.

    WP has seemingly banished even historical reference to that exonym with a pretense that Baie des Puants referred to some aspect of Green Bay itself. I can understand avoiding it as a tribal name, though it would make trying to look up terms from an old book difficult. I’ve certainly read works that referred to les Puants. As the Moingona diminished, they were apparently absorbed by the Peoria, the very people who had given them the excrement-related name.

  19. Following a link to learn more about a name on an 18th century French map, Nation du Feu:
    >The accounts of the Jesuit Relations frequently refer to the Mascouten as the “Fire Nation” or “Nation of Fire”. One Jesuit writes: “The Fire Nation is erroneously so called, its correct name being Maskoutench, which means “a treeless country,” like that inhabited by these people; but as, by changing a few letters, this Word is made to signify “fire,” therefore the people have come to be called the Fire Nation.”[3] Their name apparently comes either from a Fox word meaning “Little Prairie People” or from the Sauk term Mashkotêwi (“Prairie”) or Mashkotêwineniwa (“Plains Indians”) and shkotêwi (“fire”) which would fit the Jesuits statement.[4] Historians do not know what they called themselves (autonym).[5] The Huron knew them also as Atsistaeronnon (“people of the fire”).[6]

    I’m intrigued at the seeming similarity of Algonquian words for fire and prairie, given that it’s now known that much of the eastern prairie was anthropogenic, based on annual or frequently set prairie fires. Does anyone know whether there is an etymological relationship between the words?

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