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How do you say that? 9 (more) Idaho place names you might be saying wrong

Kamiah, rural, small town
Kara Oehler
Flickr Creative Commons

Is there anything more divisive between locals and transplants than place pronunciations? Let's face it: Idahoans are passionate about how to say the places in which they live – and rightly so.

There's no shortage of hard-to-say words in Idaho. So, without further adieu, here are nine more places that stump the uninitiated:

Kamiah (KAM-ee-eye) in Lewis County was the winter home of the Nez Perce where they manufactured "Kamia" ropes. Kamiah means the place of "many rope litters."

Kooskia (KOOS-kee) in Idaho County. The town started out with the name Stuart, but before long it was changed to Kooskia because that was the name of the railroad depot. The name is a contraction of Koos-koos-kia, which means "where the waters meet." Appropriate, since the town sits at the confluence of the Southfork and Middlefork of the Clearwater River.

Pocatello (poe-kuh-TELL-oh) in Bannock County. It comes from the name of the Indian chief of the Shoshone who gave the railroad a right-of-way through the Fort Hall Indian Reservation. But some say Pocatello preferred to be called Tondzaosha, a Shoshoni word meaning buffalo robe. As for the origin of Chief Pocatello's name, no one seems to know.

Moscow (MOSS-koe) in Latah County is often pronounced by outsiders like the Russian capital. Before it was Moscow it was called Hogs' Heaven (because the farmer's pigs loved to root out the wild camas flower bulbs) and Paradise Valley (because the farmer's wives liked that name better). When it was time to pick an official name, postmaster Samuel Neff chose Moscow, though why he picked that name is not clear. One guess: He was born in Moscow, Pennsylvania.

Lake Pend Oreille (pond oh-RAY). The French name comes from fur trappers and it means "hangs from ears." That comes from the round shell earring worn by male and female Pend d'Oreille/Kalispel tribe members. To further the confusion, Idaho also has a town called Ponderay, and there's a Montana county called Pondera, all with the same pronunciation.

Leadore (LED-or) sounds just like it's spelled. The old ghost town is in Lemhi County, and today has fewer than 100 residents.

Dubois (DOO-boyss) in Clark County, Idaho has its origins in a French surname. In France, it's likely pronounced doob-WAA, but in Idaho, it's DOO-boyss. Dubois, Idaho likely got its name from Fred Dubois, a prominent politician and one of the state's first U.S. Senators.

Mackay (MACK-ee) in Custer County sits beneath Borah Peak, Idaho's tallest mountain. Sun Valley Magazine says the old West mining town was founded in 1901 and got its name from the owner of the White Knob Mining Company.

Cocolalla (koe-koe-LAW-luh) is in Bonner County, Idaho. The origin of the word isn't entirely clear, although the book Native American Placenames of the United States by William Bright, says Cocolalla is a Coeur d'Alene (Shalishan) name meaning "very cold."

It's more common than you might think for people living in the same place to disagree about the correct pronunciation of some words. This is to be expected, says Boise State University Assistant Professor of Linguistics Tim Thornes.

“Often language is mutually agreed upon, but not through conscious effort. As with most of language, there is variation and how much variation there is is constrained by negotiation by others,” says Thornes. “If you’re in a group that lives in a certain area, it doesn’t take very long for everyone to agree, unconsciously, to a certain name for a place. It’s a matter of negotiating with your social group."

For example, not all Idahoans agree on how to say Boise. Is it Boy-zee (hard "Z") or Boy-see (soft "S")?

Thornes says the difference between Boy-see and Boy-zee can be very slight, and in running speech it’s hard to tell if someone said it with a soft "S" or a hard "Z". He says it has to do with your vocal cord vibration.

“It’s a natural process to say 'boy-zee,' because your vocal cords are already vibrating from the vowels on either side. So you have to make a conscious effort to shut off those cords for a millisecond or two. It’s not difficult, because we do it all the time.”

For example, Thornes says we should naturally say “It’s icy outside” by pronouncing it eye-zee. But we self-correct and say eye-see.

Thornes has been in Boise since 2012 and even he has trouble saying Boise.

“Everybody I know from South Dakota and Oregon called it Boy-zee.” But when he got here, Thornes says it was his duty as a linguist and an adoptive citizen to pronounce it correctly, “so I wouldn't sound like I’m from somewhere else.”

As for the right way to say Boise, Thornes says “It’s more in the ears of the listener than in the voice of the speaker.” He makes a conscious effort to say Boy-see to people who live here, assuming that’s how they would prefer it said. He’s accommodating the listener.  

As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life!). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.

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