Term: Wau [origin of place name]
Many geographic names in Wisconsin contain the syllable "wau," such as Milwaukee and Wausau. Residents and visitors often ask what this means, since it appears so often on highway signs and maps. The answer is that it doesn't seem to mean anything by itself, but rather is just a syllable in longer constructions that have various meanings.
More than a dozen American Indian languages have been spoken in Wisconsin since white observers arrived (Dakota, Ho-Chunk, Huron, Kickapoo, Menominee, Mesquakie, Miami, Mohican, Ojibwe, Oneida, Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Sauk). Although some are closely connected, others are as linguistically distinct from one another as are English, Chinese, and Hebrew.
Wisconsin place names that include "wau" may have come from any of these and will therefore have a different meaning in each case.
For example, Wausau may be derived from the Ojibwe waasa, meaning "far away," perhaps because it was far from centers of Ojibwe culture on Lake Superior. Other Ojibwe names using "wau" appear to involve light or the dawn; they may be connected to waabanong, the direction east. The name Waukesha is thought to derive from waagosh, fox, and Wauwatosa from waawaatese, firefly; these places are within traditional Potawatomi territory, and Ojibwe and Potawatomi are closely related languages.
Early white observers frequently did not record which language their informants spoke, nor even distinguish between separate languages. Some explained the meanings of place names by using languages that were rarely spoken in the area, as if one could use German to explain the names of towns in China.
Explanations appearing in historical sources such as newspapers or local histories must therefore be approached with caution.
The most reliable work on this subject is Virgil Vogel's "Indian Names on Wisconsin's Map" (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1992).
[Source: Vogel, Vogel. Indian Names on Wisconsin's Map (Madison, 1992); personal communications from Dr. Monica Macaulay and librarian Omar Poler, Univ. of Wisconsin.]