When’s the last time you said “Missouri,” and how did you say it (even just now in your head)?
Chances are, you pronounced it with an “ee” vowel at the end… but maybe not? Some residents use an “uh” vowel. Also, Missour-eye used to be a thing, and the “ss” wasn’t always pronounced as a “z.”
Back up. Slow down. The origin of the name “Missouri” is a little mysterious. It could be the Algonquian name for a Sioux-language community near the Missouri River. It could also mean “muddy water.” Still others reference “people with big canoes,” a common folk etymology — though it’s disputed. Regardless, it was used by 1600s French settlers to refer to the region.
“Evidently, French explorers were the first Europeans to use the word Missouri, and English speakers borrowed it from the French.” — Mizzou professor Charles Gilbert Youmans.
Youmans said the French likely pronounced it “Mi—ss—oo—ree,” with an unvoiced sibilant (think: hissing) sound and an “oo” like in “boo.”
Then, it got messy. The English adapted the pronunciation to their spelling, and since it ends in “i,” they used a long “eye” sound. But try saying “Missour-eye” without stressing that last vowel. No easy task. That’s why the final syllable “eye” shrank to “uh.” The “uh” sound (called a schwa) is the most common vowel for unstressed syllables in English.
Which version is used more often? The Missouri Division of Tourism cites two polls.
- 2002 Missouri State Fair: 74% favoring “ee”
- 1976 Automobile Club of Missouri: 66% favorting “ee”
Another Mizzou English professor, Donald Lance, studied the name + its use throughout his tenure. He found the majority of his students in 1945 said Missour-uh, but that gradually diminished, especially after WWII. The eastern regions led the charge for Missour-ee, while Northwesterners are more prone to use “uh.”
However you say it, take heart that we’re all probably wrong together — but we can all agree on our love for this place we ultimately call “home.”