A recent viral video shows a weather man pronouncing the name of an impossibly long Welsh town on a newscast. I will not attempt it. But it calls to mind the “longest place name in the United States,” Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg found in Webster, Massachusetts.
The story goes that two tribes (one of them English settlers) were competing over the lake, and as a peaceful resolution, they decided to divide it. To remind themselves of their agreement, they named the lake with the conditions they’d set, and those were “You fish on your side, we’ll fish on our side, and no one fishes in the middle.” That sentiment, in the Nipmuc language gives us the 45 letter name.
The problem is that as close as we can tell, that actually means “English knifemen and Nipmuc Indians at the Fishing Place at the Boundary.” Close, but not quite the same.
Called Webster Lake by people who are actually trying to communicate rather than impress tourists, the lake is also known as Lake Chaubunagungamaugg. That’s actually its historic name. And while long and “funny sounding” to Anglo-phones, it seems to translate to the sensical “lake divided by islands.”
In 1921, The Webster Times editor Laurence J. Daly wrote an article about the lake’s “true name.” It was the first time the 45-letter appellation had been seen, but it was instantly regarded as fact, and today, most locals will tell you the true name of the lake is Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.
That new name has been incorporated into the patches of civil servants, the school’s logo and it greets visitors to the town on the official “Welcome to Webster” signs.
But, the story isn’t true, and the lake’s name was never officially 45 letters long. It’s not even spelled the same around town. It stems from a time in American history where Native Americans, having been completely conquered just a few decades earlier, were the object of ridicule.
If you think I’m being hyperbolic, give a listen to a piece of this song by Ethel Merman, Sy Oliver, and Ray Bolger circa 1954.
So while the sign is good for attracting tourists, it’s also good for reminding us that our history is rife with examples of the dominant culture mocking others. As a further insult, signs around town refer to the “praying Indians” who lived there in the 1600’s. “Praying Indians” means Native Americans who’ve abandoned their culture, and submitted to what the European’s though was proper.
As a final insult, just beneath the humorous signs are the words, “Home of the Nipmuc Indians,” as though they tacitly approve this rather extreme example of cultural mockery.
Times change, and attitudes change. But if you take a moment to examine a popular and fun tale, you’ll find that there’s something much more interesting that’s not being told. This name was created to mock a people’s language, and I find it interesting that people would rather keep mocking than learn more about the people being mocked.
In case you weren’t aware, it was the Nipmuc who saved the people of Boston Massachusetts in 1630. And we’ll dedicate the next Daily Curio to that story.