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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Supersize Me

Super Bowl. Super Tuesday. In recent years everything from fast food to fast computers has been promiscuously tagged as "super." Constant repetition has muffled the word's power and obscured its original meaning, which was subtly connected to the naming of Lake Superior.

"Super" derives from the Latin concept "on top of," or "above," and goes back through many centuries to the same Sanskrit root as the English word, "over." To oversee and to supervise both mean, etymologically, to view from above, and by extension to direct subordinates. Its modern popular connotation, of something which markedly surpasses all others in its class, only became common in the 20th century, especially after the success of the comic book hero Superman in the 1930s. In earlier times, the word "superior" was used to suggest our modern idea of "super."

When French missionaries first began spreading out through the Great Lakes in the mid-1600s, they referred to the eastern lakes by the names of the Indian nations inhabiting them. But in 1648 Father Paul Ragueneau reported that at the extreme west of the region was another lake which the Indians said was even bigger than Lake Huron -- "Ce Lac superieur s'estend au Nord-ouest" ("this superior Lake extends toward the Northwest"). This is the first use of the name Lake Superior.

When Fr. Ragineau chose the word "superieur," he suggested not only that the lake was somehow greater or surpassed the others, but also that it was higher, elevated above, them. The primary meaning of the word "superieur" in his day was, "Qui est au dessus. Il est oppose a inferieur." ("That which is above. The opposite of low."). The name made sense geographically as well as etymologically.

Since the early 1600s the French had referred to the entire region of the western Great Lakes as the "Pays d'en haut" or "upper country." That's because to get to them one had to travel uphill, mounting rapids and climbing around waterfalls, as one moved westward up the St. Lawrence River Valley and across the Great Lakes. Wisconsin was at the height of this upper country – the most "super."

At Portage, if you look northeast, you see streams that flow down, ultimately, into the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic. But if you turn around and look southwest, you follow streams flowing down into the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico. The same thing is possible on county highway B east of Boulder Junction, in Vilas County, as well as at many other places in our state. The land divides the Atlantic and Gulf watersheds between the inland ends of rivers. The land creates a line that arcs from the Brule and Bad Rivers in the northwest, over to the head of the Wisconsin near the Michigan border, straight south to Portage (where the Fox flows northeast and the Wisconsin southwest), then northeast to the head of the Rock River, and finally south through Waukesha and Walworth counties into Illinois. A twig thrown in a stream to the right of your line ends up in the Atlantic; thrown in water to the left of your line, it flows down to New Orleans.

Lake Superior, then, obtained its name first from being the highest lake in the Upper Country. Only later was it discovered to also be the largest, "superior" to all its companions. Although mapmakers tried to change it in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the original name ultimately prevailed. Apparently everyone thought it was super.

[Source: Thwaites, Reuben G. The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents (Cleveland, 1901), vol. 33: 149-151]
:: Posted in Curiosities on February 2, 2008

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