The biggest of the Great Lakes is Lake Superior. But what if it was Superior Lake?
In the United States, it very well could be. English-speaking North America doesn’t have rules about whether “Lake” comes first or second.
Minnesota’s inconsistent lake names are no exception: For example, we have Lake Vermilion, Cass Lake, Lake Minnetonka, Leech Lake, Lake Como and Cedar Lake, to name a few.
While the lack of uniformity in lake names may escape the notice of most, the question of why it’s Lake Name sometimes and Name Lake others has long puzzled those who study bodies of water.
One of those people is Beatrix Beisner, a professor and co-director of the inter-university limnology research group at the Université du Québec à Montréal, who studies lakes and often translates their names between French — where “Lake” comes first, and English, where for Canadians and Americans, there really are no rules: Lake Tahoe; Crater Lake.
She works on a lake, for example, called Lac Croche. “Do I write that as Croche Lake or do I write that as Lake Croche in my papers?” she said.
After discussing the issue, she and another researcher decided to study potential explanations for Lake Name versus Name Lake. Their findings were published in a piece in Freshwater Biology.
Lake Name or Name Lake
When they set out, the researchers had a couple hypotheses. First, it seemed the size of a lake had something to do with whether “Lake” goes first or second in the name. After all, every Great Lakes has “Lake” first, as do many of the country’s biggest or most prominent lakes.
Second, they hypothesized that settlement patterns probably influenced the way lakes were named. At a glance, there did seem to be some regional differences in whether it was more common to put “Lake” first or second, which might be explained by the structure of how people who colonized different parts of the U.S. spoke.
Parts of the country colonized by people speaking Romance languages (or Gaelic, with a similar naming convention) might be more likely to put “Lake” first: In French and other romance languages (Spanish, Italian, etc.), the convention is to put “Lac” or “Lago” before the name of the lake: Lac d’Annecy; Lago de Chapala; Lago di Como.
Regions colonized by Brits and Germans (who tend to put Lake second, see: England’s Windermere (“mere” = lake) and Germany’s Wannsee (“see” = lake) might be more likely to retain lake names that put Lake second.
“It’s remarkable how consistent it is in England and Germany, too. (Some) 98% of lakes follow that convention. And the same thing in France and Spain, but the opposite,” Beisner said.
When the researchers tested those hypotheses using a sample of lake data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Lakes Assessment database, both hypotheses seemed to bear out: Lakes with more surface area were more likely to be called Lake Name, and where “Lake” appeared also seemed to be influenced by the languages of the people who colonized different regions.
That may explain why U.S. states vary greatly in how they name lakes: In the researchers’ sample, Florida and Louisiana (largely colonized by Spanish and French people) had far higher shares of Lake Name than most other states. Some states in New England, including Massachusetts and New Hampshire, were exclusively Name Lake (you can find a breakdown of Lake Name/Name Lake by state on page 6 of the article).
In Minnesota, where early colonists came from France and later came from other parts of Europe, roughly 90 percent of lakes in the researchers’ sample were Name Lake, while about 10 percent were Lake Name, the researchers found.
Of course, many lakes in Minnesota, like Bde Maka Ska and Bemidji (a shortened version of “Bemijigamaag”), have Dakota and Ojibwe names.
In the Ojibwe language, lake names typically describe geographic features, according to Anton Treuer, a professor of Ojibwe at Bemidji State University and the author of many books on Ojibwe language and culture.
When the names do include a term for “lake,” it usually comes after the descriptor, Treuer said.
Iyekiyapiwiƞ Darlene St. Clair, a professor at St. Cloud State University who teaches American Indian Studies and directs the school’s Multicultural Resource Center, is learning the Dakota language. She said it’s her understanding that when a lake name includes the word for lake an and adjective, the Dakota construction is typically noun first, followed by the adjective describing it. For example, Bde Máka Ska translates literally to “Lake Earth White.”
When it comes to the official names of Minnesota’s lakes — the ones that show up on maps, Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist and the person who deals with the names of geographic features at the DNR, confirmed that there isn’t a hard or fast Lake Name/Name Lake rule.
When “Lake” comes first, it’s usually to emphasize a feature of the lake — like Lake Superior, he said. “Lake” often comes second in the names of smaller, lesser-known features, but all of it can depend on local preference, he said in an email.
Sometimes, there isn’t total agreement on whether it’s Lake Name or Name Lake, as with Mille Lacs (officially, it’s Mille Lacs Lake, Boulay confirmed). Either way, the name is a bit redundant, because “lacs” means “lakes” in French.
While language patterns seem to be a strong determinant of how people name lakes, some states’ lake names remain hard to explain.
New England/Eastern Seaboard states Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina and Connecticut — where you might expect to find lots of Name Lakes because of English settlement, actually have a lot of Lake Names.
As for why that is, Beisner said it’s tough to tell. And she encouraged someone with more expertise in history or language to look into it.
Editor’s note: This post was updated on April 19 to add information about the Dakota convention for lake names.