After I tasted Spuzzum, Jim Taylor sent me an email listing a bunch of other delectable B.C. place names. Of one of them, he wrote, “no one has ever known how to pronounce the lake near Cranbrook, formed by the dammed and backed-up Kootenay River.” The name of the lake? Koocanusa.
The non-word-geek might quite reasonably assume that Koocanusa is, like many a place name in B.C., taken (probably somewhat mutated) from one of the local indigenous languages. There probably would not be a question on the order of “If there’s a K to stand for /k/, what does the c stand for, given that these place names are as a rule meant to be at least roughly phonetic representations? Why would c stand for /k/ there when k stands for it elsewhere? But would it really be used to stand for anything else in this context?”
But, word geek though I am, I didn’t even get to that question; just about the first thing I saw, when looking at it, was the canusa: I’ve seen that sort of thing before. Canada and USA. Given that the lake straddles the border, that seemed immediately plausible. But the Koo? I didn’t get that part right away because Koo for me is a recognizable surname – actually, I have a friend of that name who was born in south central BC, but I didn’t think that the lake was named after her family. No, of course, the lake is on the Kootenay river. The name for it was the winner of a contest to name it; it was submitted by Alice Beers of Rexford, Montana. I don’t know what other names were submitted, but Koocanusa has, aside from a nice portmanteau kind of quality, a look and sound that seem to fit in with other place names in the region that are based on indigenous words. (One such is Okanagan, which, amusingly, has in at least one place been made into a spurious Irish name, O’Kanagan.)
And, after all, Kootenay is a word from an indigenous language – it’s the Blackfoot (Siksika) version of the name of the local Ktunaxa people. Come to think of it, Canada is generally thought to have come from an indigenous word, too (Iroquois, likely). Anyway, if Koocanusa had been entirely fake-indigenous, it still wouldn’t have been the first. Two great examples of words that were made up because they sounded “Indian” are Nakiska (the ski area that was built to host the 1988 Olympic alpine events, near Calgary) and Idaho.
Have you noticed, by the way, how often faux-Indian words have /k/ or /h/ in them? They seem to somehow be stereotypical “Indian” sounds (from the view of Anglophones), earthy or “authentic” or whatever – at the back of the throat, close to the source of breath, not on the dainty “civilized” tip of the tongue. True, they are both pretty common sounds; any given sentence of reasonable length in English is likely to contain one or both, perhaps several times. But I do feel – I don’t have survey data to back this up, but it’s an impression, so take it as you will – that they seem overrepresented in “Indian” words (names used with an intent of signifying some “Indianness” for non-Indian people). In actual indigenous languages, of course, /k/ and /h/ are present in a much more reasonable proportion (for a quick lesson in some of the Nakoda language, for instance, see “Meaning of a Nakoda Stoney prayer and âba wathtech”).
What Koocanusa is, anyway, is something not really new in place names. Not new at all, in fact. It’s a syllable acronym – well, except for the usa part, which is a letter acronym, so really Koocanusa is a mixed acronym, like canola. We all know what an acronym is; a syllable acronym is one that uses whole syllables rather than individual letters. Other examples include Kenora (Keewatin, Norman, Rat Portage – they left off the final t), Soho (
South of Holborn in London, South of Houston in New York), Tribeca (Triangle below Canal), Soweto (South West Township)… Oh, there are a great many. An interesting variant is the spelled-out pronounced acronym; the first example that comes to my mind is Ceepeear, the name of a neighbourhood in Calgary that was built near the CPR railyards (I once heard a newsman mangle it as “si-pee-er” in an evident attempt not to say it like “C P R.”)
So how do you say Koocanusa? Heck, if Jim isn’t sure, neither am I. But I rather suspect the split is between those who say “coo canoe sa” and those who say “coo can you sa” (cool! can you canoe in the lake, sir?). Perhaps someone local to the area can say more.