How Do You Say That? 9 (More) Idaho Place Names Only Idahoans Can Pronounce

Aug 27, 2014

Kamiah, rural, small town
The Kamiah flower shop can be found in downtown Kamiah, that's kam-ee-eye.
Credit Kara Oehler / Flickr Creative Commons

Idahoans are passionate about how to say the places in which they live. We learned that earlier this month with a post about the 10 places only Idahoans know how to pronounce.

You sent us dozens of suggestions, comments and explanations about Idaho's unique place names. Commentors also disagreed about the correct pronunciation of some words, which 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")? Here's some of what readers had to say.

"I lived in Boise my entire life and I say boyzee and koona. The only people I know who say boy-see are from out of state and reading it as it's spelled, and how you say Kuna is about fifty fifty." -DukeOfSaoPaulo

"How long has your entire life been? I'm over fifty years old, born in Idaho, spent a good chunk of that living near Boise, worked in Boise and it was always pronounced Boy-see by everyone I knew, including my grandparents who had also spent a good share of their lives in the area. On the other hand, out-of-staters I knew almost always pronounced it Boy-zee." -Idaho Native

"Those from SOUTHERN Idaho pronounce it Boy zee.WE are a bit more country down here:)" -Diane

"yeah, I'd agree, relatives from way back in the Owyhees drawled out more a Boyzee, if not simply 'the Valley.'" - Ridahoan

"I was born in Emmett and currently live in Weiser, both of which are in southern Idaho, and my whole family has ALWAYS said Boy-see. My husband, who was born in Ontario, OR, says Boy-zee, and I can't get him to pronounce it correctly. GGGRRRRR!!" - Wendy Poston

Thornes says the difference between Boysee and Boyzee 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, then 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.  

There's no shortage of hard-to-say words in Idaho. Here are suggestions from you, that we took a closer look at.

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, rural, small town
Credit Kara Oehler / Flickr Creative Commons

Kooskia (KOOSS-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. His daughter says the name did not mean anything.

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 hint: 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." 

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

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Editor's Note: We originally said Mackay was in Oneida County (that's oh-NYE-duh), when it really sits inside Custer County in Central Idaho.