Etymology of Kalamazoo

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Kalamazoo is the name of several places in the U.S. state of Michigan:

All are named after the river, but there is uncertainty concerning the origin of the river's name. A number of etymologies (some of them folk etymologies) have been proposed, all of which suggest that the name was derived from the languages of indigenous peoples. Some of the theories are:

  1. It is derived from the Potawatomi word negikanamazo, which is variously translated as "otter tail" or "stones like otters." This could refer to area wildlife. This interpretation was apparently suggested by Henry Schoolcraft.
  2. Another popular account is the legend of a Potawatomi named Fleet Foot. In order to win his bride, he was required to run from his settlement to a point on the river and back before a pot of water boiled away. This event is thought to have occurred in 1810, a couple of decades before the first permanent white settlers. The Potawatomi word kikalamezo appears on an 1823 atlas of the area. The word translates as "boiling pot" or "place where the water boils,"[1] and refers to the Fleet Foot legend.
  3. The "boiling pot" translation may also refer to various nearby bends in the river that resemble pots.
  4. An alternative translation of kikalamezo is "mirage" or "reflecting waters," and could refer to the once-clear waters of the river,[2] which are now somewhat clouded by pollution.[3]
  5. The current name used by the local Ojibwa and Odawa tribes for Kalamazoo is Giikanaamozoog, this means, "They have been smoked/cured." The explanation given for this name is that the dark waters of the Kalamazoo River have a smokey look/appearance.
  6. Yet another possibility is that it meant a place to ford the river. The city was originally established near one of the few places in the area where it was easy to cross by wading.
  7. Early official papers make reference to the name of Kalamazoo as derived from Native American language meaning "the area where animals wounded by Indians crawl to die."

In his 1986 Indian Names in Michigan, Virgil Vogel explained when Kalamazoo County was formed on July 30, 1830, it "was allegedly named from the 'Indian' name of the river, Ke-kanaamazoo, 'the boiling pot'." There had been various transliterations of the term. In the 1821 Treaty of Chicago, the village of Match-e-be narh-she-wish, was described as at the head of the "Kekalamazoo river" (this village became the present-day city). Vogel suggests that the word "may be from the Miami, because of the presence of l." Vogel cites Father Chrysostam Verwyst stating the name Kalamazoo comes from Ojibwe as a "corruption of Kikanamsoso" meaning "it smokes, or he is troubled with smoke" and pronounced "kee-kah-nah-mo-zo or kee-kau-nau-mo-zo". Vogel also cites William R. Gerard as concurring in this opinion, that "Kalamazoo is a slight alteration of older Ojibwe kikalâmoza, meaning 'he is inconvenienced by smoke in his lodge'." Vogel further cites Gerard as dismissing Schoolcraft's opinion that the name was from negikanamazoo, or "otters beneath the surface" as an "etymological absurdity". However, Vogel also suggests that both Verwyst and Gerard accounts also "deserve this label". Vogel also dismisses the view that the name means "mirage or reflecting river".

Instead, Vogel suggests the following interpretations for the source of Kalamazoo as more credible:

  • a corruption of Ojibwe kikikamagad meaning "it goes or runs fast"
  • a mangled form of Kalimink, which is also the name of a creek in Ingham County
  • a mangled form of Killomick, a variant of an early name for the Calumet River, which meant "deep, still water"


  • Vogel, Virgil J. (1986). Indian Names in Michigan. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-10069-6. 
  • "How Kalamazoo Got Its Name". Kalamazoo Public Library: Local history. Retrieved 2010-01-21. 


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