Is 'Des Moines' just some dirty joke? (fwd)

Phil CashCash cashcash at EMAIL.ARIZONA.EDU
Sun Sep 14 22:23:03 UTC 2003

Is 'Des Moines' just some dirty joke?
Oh, poo! Our capital's name seems to stem from rival potty mouths.

Register Staff Writer

A linguist specializing in the extinct Miami-Illinois language says he's
come across a funny, 330-year-old story that gives "Des Moines" new

And - chamber of commerce-types might want to brace themselves - it
appears we've been punked.

Michael McCafferty, a visiting lecturer at Indiana University who has
spent decades researching Algonquian languages, agrees with the
commonly held notion that the "Moines" in Des Moines is a French
derivation of Moingoana, an Indian tribe that once lived along the
banks of the Des Moines River.

But he insists that rather than denoting the tribe's true identity, the
name was a ribald joke offered up to French explorers Marquette and
Jolliet in 1673 as a bit of razzing between competing Indian

McCafferty based his conclusion on the work of another linguist, David
Costa, who wrote an article on the etymology of a number of
Miami-Illinois tribal names, Moingoana among them. Moingoana,
McCafferty cites Costa, originates from the word "mooyiinkweena" -
which translates, politely, to "the excrement-faces."

Obviously, this was either a tribe with very low self-esteem or there
was more to the name than first appeared. McCafferty says he
immediately recognized the work of a prankster and broke out laughing.

"Then I thought, "Bet the people of Des Moines are going to love this,"
" he said.

The tribe's name, McCafferty noted, was first recorded by Father Jacques
Marquette at the village of the Peoria near the mouth of the Des Moines
River and was, no doubt, supplied to him by the Peoria. Like most
western tribes at the time, the Peoria were competing to control as
much trade with the French as they could and prized their "middle-man"
status, McCafferty said.

So when Marquette got around on that late June day in 1673 to asking the
Peoria chief who else lived in the area, the chief wasn't inclined to
play up the neighboring tribe's virtues. Instead, McCafferty theorizes,
he shrewdly chose a name - mooyiinkweena or Moingoana - that he hoped
would put Marquette off.

The funny thing is that Marquette was fluent in Ojibwa and had studied
the Miami-Illinois language for two years, McCafferty said. But he
apparently accepted the name without question, never realizing he'd
been had.

"I can't imagine a Jesuit letting something like that go by," McCafferty
noted dryly.

No one else - at least no other non-Indians - got the joke either.

After the Marquette-Jolliet Mississippi expedition, the French, relying
on Marquette's research and following their usual practice of naming
rivers after the tribes that lived along them, began calling the Des
Moines River "Riviere de Moingoana." By the end of the 1700s, the
Moingoana - or whoever they actually were - had merged with other
Illinois Indians and ceased to exist as a tribal entity.

The Miami-Illinois language became extinct around 1900, reducing even
further the chances the true meaning of the name would ever be
unearthed. Eventually, few people even realized a tribe called the
Moingoana ever existed, and it became accepted that the shortened form
of the tribe name, les Moines, referred to the Trappist monks along the
river (although the name predated any monks, McCafferty said).

McCafferty, who has been studying the Miami-Illinois language for nearly
30 years and has done extensive work on place names, said he has "no
doubt at all" that his explanation is the correct one. He credits a
recent revival in interest in the Miami-Illinois language with helping
bring the city's "true" meaning to light.

"It's the knowledge of this language that has grown in the past 25 years
that has allowed us the ability to understand what past scholars
couldn't understand," he said. "So, yes, this particular place name is
definitely nailed down. Think the city fathers will a) give me the key
to the city? (or) b) call for my execution?"

The real question is whether Des Moines city officials will c) embrace
McCafferty's new theory on the city's Web site. The site already
proffers two possible explanations for the capital's moniker:

Some people feel that 'Des Moines' is derived from the Indian word
"moingona' meaning river of the mounds which referred to the burial
mounds that were located near the banks of the river. Others are of the
opinion that name applies to the Trappist Monks (Moines de la Trappe)
who lived in huts at the mouth of the Des Moines river.

Although Marylee Woods, customer service and training adviser for the
city, found McCafferty's take on things amusing, she said the city
would most likely want to do more investigating before adding a third

The city has been working hard on promoting the idea that Des Moines is
one of the best places in the country to locate a company, she said.
Woods doesn't even want to contemplate the challenge of fitting
"excrement-faces" into current marketing plans.

"You know I'm resisting going there with ideas," she said with a laugh.
"This is just not quite the image we want people to think of when they
think of Des Moines."

The Girl Scouts of Moingona Council, which adopted its name in 1957 and
favors the "mounds" explanation, didn't seem overly concerned that they
might be named after a punch line.

"To be honest, I doubt if it will affect us much," said Brenda
Freshour-Johnston, marketing and communications director for the Girl
Scouts council. "People take the meaning of something and adapt it. To
us, Moingona is a beautiful word that says a lot about our council and
our history and some of Iowa's history."

Des Moines isn't the first city to have its onomastic underpinnings
yanked out from under it, McCafferty said.

The name "Chicago" is generally accepted by linguists today to mean
either"skunk" or "wild leek" (a foul-smelling plant), but the Chicago
Convention and Tourism Bureau is still in denial, primly proclaiming on
its Web site that the name comes from "an Indian word meaning strong or

McCafferty, who published his observations in "Names, A Journal of
Onomastics," clearly admires the Peoria Indians' ability to pull off
what may be the longest-lived practical joke ever. He understands,
though, that civic leaders may not see as much humor in it.

"I guess we'll just have to be content with scholarly journals," he

More information about the Ilat mailing list