I was recently flipping through my Merriam Webster’s Geographical Dictionary (as one does), and at the top of p. 534 I was thunderstruck by the entry beginning “Ishawooa Pass \ꞌi-shə-wä\” (i.e., /ˈɪʃəwa/). Could that be right? So I did some googling and found this video, where seven seconds in we hear “up the Ishawooa trail” with the final vowel more like a schwa (natural for words of that phonetic shape) but otherwise as advertised. Not a trace of anything that might be represented by the -oo-. Trying to find out more, I did some more googling and found this page, which gives some history:

Town in Big Horn County, Wyoming. An Indian word meaning “much cascara.” (Gannett, 1905) “Ishawooa was named by Capt. Belknap. He wanted something different, and took this Indian name. I do not know what it means. It isn’t ‘Ishawood’ nor ‘Ishawoa,’ but is ‘ISHAW-OOA.’ (Rollinson, 1948)

As incoherent as that is, it’s better than nothing; “cascara” is presumably this. And that page led me to Wyoming Places, which “provides information about locations, histories, and name origins of places in the great state of Wyoming.” I like sites like that (cf. Colorado Place Names from earlier this year); local pronunciations are a longstanding interest of this blog, starting less than six months into its existence.


  1. Dmitry Pruss says

    But cascara doesn’t grow anywhere close to Wyoming; and the state site you linked to has Belknap’s own 1873 diary entry stating that “Ish-a-woo-a” was named after a pillar-shaped rock formation which the Indians used as a landmark to identify this river (aka South Fork Stinking Water).
    The river seems to be called South Fork Shoshone now, renamed by popular request in 1901, and the name Ishawooa stuck to one of its main tributaries…

  2. The 1873 diary is by William A Jones, not Henry Belknap; I surmise Rollinson, 1948 was mistaken.

  3. Dmitry Pruss says

    Right, I didn’t check the authorship. His guides I assume, must have been Shoshone?

  4. And from that William A Jones article I got to Togwotee Pass, with the unlikely pronunciation “TOH-guh-tee.”

  5. His guides I assume, must have been Shoshone?

    The previous day, 25 July:

    This morning Washakee, with a large party of his braves, in full dress, made me a state call. He was much interested in the expedition, but did not seem so well pleased at having so many of his best young men go with us as soldiers.

  6. Mae Urbanek’s Wyoming Place Names says, ‘a Shoshone name meaning “lying warm”’. However, Park County, from the generally well-researched and always enjoyable Images of America series, says, ‘[William] Jones took the name from his Shoshone guides, Moonharvy, Charlie and Bob. Ishawooa means the “wolf’s penis” and identifies a rock formation along the South Fork now named Castle Rock. The Ishawooa Mountains, below, retain the name. Later citizens offered a more polite definition of the place name, “where the cold water meets the warm water.”’

    The pronunciation is given at the same paragraphs as “ish-ah-wha”.

    Poking around the Shoshoni dictionary hints that it might mean “coyote’s penis”, but I haven’t cross-compared all the dialectal variants plus the origin of Jones’s informants in order to assemble a coherent story. wooa plausibly reflects [wɨa].

  7. Whoa. The dictionary is a strong hint. Although lingua Shoshone non penis canina

  8. I was interested by the possible use of the name ‘Coyote’s Penis’ for other mountains/buttes in the region… For instance, on p. 252 in this ethnogeography of the Wind River Shoshone, the form i´šawë’ (with ’ indicating gemination of the initial consonant of a following element, I believe) is given as the Eastern Shoshone name of Washakie Needles. Were any other starkly prominent features jutting above the surrounding terrain given the same name?

    I wonder if the name “Coyote’s Penis” is a (perhaps joking?) reference to myth… Apparently the figure of Coyote in Shoshone myth possesses a long, detachable penis of considerable size that can operate independently of his body, as for example in the following myth given in Jon P. Dayley (1989) Tümpisa (Panamint) Shoshone Grammar, p. 463ff, in which Coyote’s ‘Sky Penis’ (tukuwüappüh: tukun ‘straight up, directly above’ + wüaʺ ‘penis’ + -püh, absolutive suffix) is active, and which apparently explains the distribution of piñon pines across the region:

    “We will go get pinenuts,” it is said they said, “there someplace, northward,” they said. “We don’t have any pinenuts; we don’t have any pinenuts in the mountains,” they said.

    Everyone went, that Flicker, that Crow, and Kingbird; all of the birds went. Coyote went running along with the people a little later then. They arrived there then.

    “We are coming to get pinenuts,” they said. “Who will get them then? — The one having the long tongue will do it.”

    “I’ll be the one,” it is said Flicker said. At that time then he got them down.

    The old women [who owned the pinenuts] said, “Our pinenuts have already been taken. After all, they already came pouring down to get the pinenuts. They all flew down.”

    Coyote went around doing this to those old ladies with his Sky Penis in their faces; he hit them, it sounded like. When the pinenuts would be taken, it was with the Sky Penis, Coyote’s Sky Penis. His Sky Penis did it.

    Then those ones coming died [for some reason]. When coming then they were dying. Coyote going through there died because he didn’t have any water. He died screaming of thirst.

    That Flicker got the pinenuts; he brought them at that time. There in the mountains he did it; he planted them.

    Kingbird was killed down there. They killed him, chasing him. On the other side, Crow was killed. It was then that he became Big Black Rock [in Death Valley]. Then when Crow flew all around, that’s how it was! The piñon pines stood throughout the mountains!

  9. Man, I thought Norse myths and sagas were brutal…

  10. It seems that “Coyote’s penis” is a popular term for volcanic plugs everywhere around there.

  11. In Christiansen-Bolli’s Tadaksahak grammar, one of the two glossed texts at the end is a pleasant little folktale that starts with Hyena setting up shop as a boarding school teacher, eating up all the kids entrusted to him except one who he keeps around to tell his father goat everything is alright, then eating him too, fooling the elephant into killing the father, then fooling the elephant into drinking some boiling water that drives him mad with pain and makes him trample all the other animals in the whole region, so Hyena can eat everyone’s carcasses. I guess at least one character gets a happy ending.

  12. Stu Clayton says

    a long, detachable penis of considerable size that can operate independently of his body

    How odd. I occasionally have dreams with that plot element, minus the size feature. In the dream I worry a little whether it will fit back on and stay put, physiologically speaking. I don’t know if someone is trying to tell me something, but whatever it might be, it’s now too late to make any difference.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    I occasionally have dreams with that plot element

    This has been explained by Freud. Such dreams reflect the fear of losing one’s teeth as one grows older.

  14. Stu Clayton says

    Well, I have lost almost all of them over the years (I still have two that I can chew with), and gave nary a thought to the matter until it was too late. Looks like Freud confused fear and regret.

    Is this “fear of losing one’s teeth” a metaphor for fear of impotence ? Dreams are animated metaphors, they say, so the detached plot element would be a dream of a dream. I think the Censor has been smoking too much weed.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Not at all. Impotence is a metaphor for losing one’s teeth.

  16. I looked at the Tadakshak story. Cheerful as promised, but Lameen, I think you misremembered some details. The naughty scamp is Jackal, not Hyena; the father is Warthog; and after he is killed, the animals render his carcass and the elephant drinks the hot grease, not boiling water. This makes the story even more hilarious.

  17. When Freud seems to be talking about sex, it’s always a sublimated form of talking about dentistry. Not understanding this has led to much confusion.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    This cross-cultural semiotic theme was the topic of a novelty/”alternative” rock semi-hit (with spoken-word narrative) from circa 1993, which I enjoy mostly for the nostalgic setting of a onetime version of the East Village that no longer exists in the same mode.

  19. Ah, 1992, back when the p-word was subversive. Then, a year later, came the Bobbitts, and as Joel Achenbach wrote (“A Stitch in Time”),

    The male organ had always been an unmentionable, the word too graphic and specific, simultaneously clinical and lurid. With the Bobbitt case, the penis now gambols freely along the avenues of public discourse, a precocious intruder into polite conversation, and there may be no way to make it go back whence it came.

    I’m sure Achenbach was pleased with himself.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Dreams are animated metaphors, they say

    Yeah, probably – for people who think in metaphors a lot. So… most people, but not me. My dreams spell things out.

  21. Sometimes a detachable second sky penis is just a detachable second sky penis.

  22. Stu Clayton says


    What about Christopher Isherwood, whose name was pronounced by his Berlin landlady as “ishyvoo”.

  23. I remember another folktale about Coyote and his giant detachable penis:

    Coyote wants to pick up some sky maidens to have sex with, but he’s afraid they will be spooked by the size of his penis, so he leaves it with Squirrel. Coyote finds a sky maiden and goes back to retrieve his penis, but Squirrel has disappeared with it. It turns out that two more sky maidens wandered by and were very impressed with the penis, so Squirrel went off and had sex with both of them with it. By the time Squirrel gets back and returns the penis, the girl Coyote picked up has lost interest. He is naturally very angry with Squirrel, but after Squirrel tells Coyote about all the hot sex, Coyote grows very proud of his penis and enjoys the story of the sex almost as much as he would have enjoyed having it.

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