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Front Porch: Rationale for lake names deep subject

Thu., Aug. 7, 2014, midnight

It was summertime several decades ago when as a newlywed I moved to Spokane and I first heard that familiar phrase: “We’re going to the lake.”

I didn’t know much about the area, being new here and all, but I was pretty sure there was more than just one lake out there that a person could cool off in. “Which lake?” I’d ask, and then I’d be told – Lake Coeur d’Alene, let’s say. But the next time I’d hear the same sentence from the same person, I’d assume the speaker was heading to Coeur d’Alene again only to discover that this time it was to Williams Lake.

From this experience I learned that all lakes around here are known by their more common name – “the” lake. I don’t know why this is so, only that it is, and I no longer question it.

Still, lake names puzzle me. For example, what were they thinking in the 1670s in what would become Massachusetts when they named the 1,442-acre lake bordering what would become Connecticut, Lake Chargoggagoggmanchaugg agoggchaubunagungamaugg? There are several spellings, but this one seems to be the favored one. An Iroquois term which loosely translated means boundary fishing place (or the more humorous definition “you fish on your side, I’ll fish on mine and nobody fishes in the middle”), the lake is mercifully more often called by the name of the town in which it’s located – Webster.

And I’m sure there are probably some good stories for the naming of Big Dummy Lake in Wisconsin and Big Rat Lake in Minnesota, among many other colorful names of inland bodies of water.

But what I’m most curious about is when the word “lake” comes before the name and when it comes after. We have Lake Pend Oreille, Lake Washington, Lake Chelan and the aforementioned Lake Coeur d’Alene – but then there’s Newman Lake, Liberty Lake, Sprague Lake and others. What’s with that?

Research doesn’t yield much useful information. One opinion is that “lake” appears in the second position for smaller lakes (like Green Lake in Seattle) and beforehand for larger ones (Lake Roosevelt, for example). But then I give you Lake Spokane (small) and Flathead Lake (big). Moving out of our corner of the nation, there’s Florida’s Lake Okeechobee (big) and Utah’s Great Salt Lake (even bigger) as well as the smaller Clear Lake in California and Lake Iroquois in Vermont.

Another opinion out there is that lakes that either have French names or were named by the French or other Europeans have “lake” in the first position – like Coeur d’Alene and Pend Oreille in our own backyard and all of the Great Lakes (named by the French). This is supposed to be because in French the adjective comes after the noun. In French, you don’t wear a red hat but rather a hat red.

And a little more research shows that the French/European theory isn’t consistent either. The famous pioneer and Belgian-born priest Pierre-Jean DeSmet named that lovely lake in North Idaho Roothaan Lake after one of his superiors in Rome. The name didn’t stick, as it later became Priest Lake, but “lake” was in the second position either way.

The U.S Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Office was queried on this subject some years ago and offered that there is no rule to go by but that it appears “lake” is more often first for very large bodies of water “but this cannot be presumed, and we reiterate, there is no rule … the policy of paramount importance is that of local use and acceptance, so it (naming of lakes) is usually determined by perception and recommendation from local governments and quasi-official organizations as well as the various State Names Authorities.”

There it is. However it sounds best is pretty much how it goes.

I wonder what actresses Ricki Lake and Lake Bell think about all this.

Voices correspondent Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at

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