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What’s in a name? Sometimes, a surprise

This is absolutely true: When I got married, back in the Dark Ages, I received a copy of my marriage license in the mail. My home address was listed as being located in Moore County.

Never heard of Moore County in Minnesota? Say it out loud — now do you get it?

Right. I lived, at that time, in Mower County — but if you are a native, your pronunciation of “Mower” is more like “Moore” (although not exactly. It’s sort of hard to explain; it’s a kind of sliding one syllable, like Mooouhorrrr). The uninitiated (or stubborn) pronounce it “Mau-er” or “Mow-er.” I have to admit, though, I was taken a bit aback that whoever typed up my license information did not know how to spell the name of the hand that fed it. This, by the way, was back in the 1980s, so don’t point fingers at any who work there today. Not their fault. But it is kind of funny.)

Lots of towns have their own special brand of pronunciation. Some natives of Racine say “RAY-seen,” while those in Stewartville skip one syllable altogether and say something akin to “Sturtville.” (However, real natives call it Hooterville. Before anyone gets excited it was that way WAY before a restaurant with a famous name appeared).

Actually, Minnesota’s odd proclivity for strange pronunciations has nothing on Iowa, the motherland of strange inflections. I had much to learn when I moved just over the border, into Osage (many claim the right pronunciation for that is “o-SAGE,” not “O-sage”) and began working for a daily newspaper in Mason City.

Me (making a call): “Hello; I am looking for the phone number of John Doe. I understand he may live in Titonka, and we’re doing a story …”

(Extended chortling)

Me: “Ummm … did I say something wrong?”

Yes, indeed!

Actually, Titonka (TY-tonka) is one of the easier town names to say. But not so with the Iowa town of Nevada (Nuh-VAY-da) or Madrid, which doesn’t sound at all like the capital of Spain — it’s MAD-rid, thank you very much.

Stranger yet are the reasons for the names: Nevada was named because one of the founders — a Mr. Thrift — loved the Sierra Nevada mountains so much that he named the town Nevada and his daughter, Sierra Nevada. Jeez. Not everyone is named for a mountain range. But why the pronunciation change? No one seems to know.

Madrid was called “Swede Pointe” for several years. Then, one of the founders died, who had failed to file a town plat. After the administrator of the estate got into a fight with the founders’ sons, he changed the name on the plat to the most un-Swedish name he could think of (he got the idea from one of his employees, who was of Spanish descent). Ta-da. Madrid with an attitude.

And, then there is Boon-a Vista (Buena Vista), despite all of our Spanish lessons to the contrary. And: Monticello, which is pronounced Monte-sello (not Monte-chello) and Louisa is la-WISE-a, not Loo-EE-sa

And how about Tripoli? Even though it is, according to its history, named for the Battle of Tripoli, as in the famous shores of, it is pronounced the wildly weird, “Truh-PO-LA.” Really.

Iowa is also home to some very strange town names no matter how you say them: Defiance and Cylinder, What Cheer and East Peru (PEE-rue); Diagonal and Fruitland.

Finally, there is Elkader, Iowa, whose name is neither hard to pronounce or to spell. But it does have a most interesting history.

In 1845, the town’s first settler, Timothy Davis, followed the life of Abd el-Kader, a famous revolutionary of his day. He was an Algerian Muslim who did battle against the French colonial invasion of his country.

The Iowa farmer was so taken with el-Kader’s stand against the French that he decided to name the site of his new flour mill after him. Later, town fathers used the name, with a bit of realignment, to form “Elkader.” Today, you can even eat at an Algerian restaurant in the town.

And, when Elkader suffered massive damage due to a 2008 flood, the Algerian government was almost immediately on the phone, offering help with disaster relief, the history says.

So in this case, what is in a name makes all the difference in the world — no matter how you pronounce it.