Steve: What’s in a city name? Who knows?

Since I was a kid, I seem to have been drawn to places with names that no one seems to understand. Europeans have butchered some of the original Native American names of these places beyond recognition, and the meanings of these names have been lost, too.

Take Chicago. No one really knows what "Chicago" means. Theories range from "cattail" to "skunk." I once lived close to Chicago on the Indiana side the Calumet Region, which hangs off of the extreme southeast corner of Chi-town. "Calumet" means "peace pipe."

The region was probably called that, however, because it was where they got the reeds that the pipes were made from. On the Illinois side lies Calumet City, fictional home of the Blues Brothers and once host to more saloons per capita than any city in the nation, but that's another story.

I grew up in Missoula, Mont. What's a Missoula? Again, nobody knows, but it's probably wet. It may mean "cold water" (I can vouch for that!) or "place where rivers go in different directions."

Missoula lies were the Clark Fork and Bitterroot rivers meet on their way to the Missouri River. The name "Ne-misoola-takoo" appears on an early map of the area. It sounds like an extra-terrestrial cuss word improvised by Robin Williams as Mork from Ork, but the name " Missoula" may have been extracted from that six-syllable mash-up.

After my years in "Da Region," as the Calumet Region was known long before rappers changed "the" to "da," I moved to California, where I ended up in Cucamonga. Yes, there really is a Cucamonga. So what is it? Best guess, according to Internet sources, is Shoshone for "sandy place."

It used to be a major agricultural area, especially for wine grapes, before freeways, concrete and 100,000 people came to turn it into a suburb of Los Angeles.

And now I live in Tucumcari. I've heard two versions of what Tucumcari means. One is "lookout," which makes sense when you consider that you can pick out Tucumcari Mountain from 50 miles away. The other version is, well, a body part. If you have a questionable imagination like mine, you can look at Tucumcari Mountain and guess which one.

I wonder if that second translation inspired a Methodist minister in 1907 to bowdlerize Tucumcari's meaning from "Ew-w!" to "Aw-w!" He concocted a tale of romance, death and heartbreak now called "the Legend of Tucumcari," a Romeo and Juliet, or rather, a Tucum and Cari, for the High Plains.

In brief, here's how the story goes: Apache Chief Wautonomah had a daughter named Cari and needed to choose a brave to be his successor and his daughter's husband. There were two candidates: One was named Tucum, apparently favored by both the chief and Cari. The other's name was Tonopah. Today, they would undergo interviews for the job, but in those days, they fought to the death.

Tucum may have been a hunk with upper management potential, but he couldn't fight. Tonopah won, the legend says. Cari couldn't stand the thought of being stuck with Tonopah, so she grabbed a knife and took him out. Then she took herself out, since she couldn't live without Tucum. The grief-stricken chief then wailed, "Tucum! Cari!"

Then, the legend goes, he too himself out, too. He was standing below the 900-foot-tall butte that now bears the name that Wautonomah coined with his dying lament, or so the legend goes.

It would have been different had the names been Alba and Kirky.

Steve Hansen is the managing editor of the Quay County Sun. He can be reached at

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