What’s in a Name?

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources tracks on its lake pages (http://dnr.wi.gov/lakes/) some 15,000 plus lakes, ponds, reservoirs, flowages, impoundments, et cetera.

photo by Diane Glodoski

 Among these numerous water bodies are a plethora of names.  Often these names are tantalizing (Mystic Lake).  Others are boringly descriptive or uninspired (Round Lake).  Some names are unique (Pork and Beans Lake). Others are more common (Mud Lake).  Many of these names are rich in history and we hope to reveal with future blogs some of the more fascinating names as we’ll as uncover some of their history and explore statistics or patterns associated with lake names.  We hope you, the reader, will contribute to this blog with a recounting of the history of your lake’s name.

But, back to the original question, and more specifically, what’s in a lake name?  Quite often, it’s nothing!  Among the 15,000 plus water bodies (not counting rivers and streams), approximately 62% have no name.  Most are unnamed lakes but some are unnamed springs while others are sloughs, oxbows, or horseshoes on Wisconsin rivers.

So, how do lakes get names?  The origins of many lake names came from Wisconsin’s native peoples or shortly after European arrival.  But, there exists a process for naming unnamed lakes.  That duty rests with the Wisconsin Geographic Names Council (click here to learn more).  The Council was created by the Natural Resources Board after the state legislature transferred to it functions of the State Geographic Board.  The Council is housed in the DNR’s Water Division and has as advisors the State Chief Engineer, the State Geologist, and a representative from the Department of Transportation.  The Council meets but once a year to consider proposed name changes and corrections.  One function of the Council is to determine the most correct and appropriate spelling of named geographic features.  The Council cooperates with County Boards to eliminate, as far as possible, duplication of names in Wisconsin.  Also, the Council publishes an official state dictionary of geographic names and cooperates with the U. S. Geographic Board to avoid conflict between state and federal names for geographic features.

Anyone can nominate a name for an unnamed lake with local governmental support.  Name proposal forms can be found at the Council’s webpage (above).  Restrictions apply to selecting names.  For example, geographic features are not named after any living person.  Names with Native American or French origins are appropriate as long as the tribes are native to Wisconsin or names are not too long or difficult to pronounce.  The Council prefers names that are used locally and without hyphens.  Further, specific names should precede generic names.  So, Odd Lake is okay but Lake Odd is not.  Also, single names without apostrophes are preferred (White Lake instead of White’s Lake).

Fortunately for the Council, only lakes at least 10 acres in size are generally considered for naming and most unnamed Wisconsin lakes are below that threshold.  Yet, there are some bigger ones, including one unnamed lake of 1270 acres.

So, stay tuned for more stories on lake names and please send your contributions to the DNR Lakes Mailbox.

Contributed by Michael S. Putnam
This entry was posted in Education and Outreach, Lake News, Lake Questions, Other and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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