The French were the first Europeans to explore Missouri, so it naturally followed that many of our local place names were rooted in the French language. And therein lies the rub. French phrases defy literal interpretation into English--they just don't mean the same thing. Add to that the difficulty French traders experienced in pronouncing Indian words, together with the equal difficulty most Americans had when trying to annunciate French, and it should come as no surprise that a lot of our place names were badly corrupted from their original pronounciations and meanings.

An example will illustrate the point. There is a creek that flows into the Missouri River called Loose Creek. That is what the Americans called it, because that's how they thought the French had termed it. But the French called it Bear Creek. How did this mixup occur? Easy. The French word for she-bear was l'ourse. That sounded an awful lot like "loose" to American ears.

So with that in mind, it's time to open this French jarre du vers (can of worms), and tackle some of the misappropriated and mispronounced French place names in the lake region.

The word OSAGE is an American corruption of a French mispronunciation of an Indian word.

(What did he say?)

The original Indian word, spelled phonetically, was "Wa-SHA-she," with the accent on the middle syllable. It referred to a certain clan within the Osage nation.

French traders pronounced it as "Wa-sha-SHAY" with the accent on the last syllable, and spelled it Ou-sa-gé.

When the Americans encountered the French word Ou-sa-gé on paper, they universally mispronounced it "oh-sage." Of course, the corrupted word would be spelled "Osage."

Clear as mud?

OZARKS is another word that comes to us from the French. It is the combination of two words: aux arcs. All sources agree on this. But the sources do not agree on the meaning of those two words.

Taken literally the phrase means "to the arcs." But French phrases cannot be taken literally. As Mark Twain wrote, the French language tangles everything up to the degree "that when you start into a sentence you never know whether you are going to come out alive or not."

Consider the French phrase pomme de terre. It means potato. But the literal interpretation of the phrase is: "apple of the earth." It all depends on how it is used in context with other words.

And that's the problem with aux arcs. The phrase cannot stand alone; it must be used in some other context. The historical record gives us a clue. French explorer and trader Claude-Charles du Tisné traversed the area in 1719, and described the region in his journal as "many mountains of rock." Very likely the French term aux arcs was a similar descriptive phrase. In that case, the functional interpretation of aux arcs is: "in the rounded hills."

Ready for more?

GRAVOIS comes from the French word for gravel, which is actually gravier. Early explorers referred to the creek as the Gravel River.

GLAIZE is a shortened form of aux glaize or auglaize. It is reputedly French in origin, meaning "to the clay"--a reference to the clay soil near its headwaters. But "clay" in French is argile, so another explanation seems plausible. The the correct word or phrase may have been la glace, which means "mirror," or "ice." Both words could have described the appearance of the early-day stream.

So there's your French lesson for the day. Look for the origin of non-French place names on other pages of the Lake Area History web site.

© 1999-2000 by Michael Gillespie. All rights reserved.