I've heard it.  You've heard it.  Anyone who has lived in the Northland or spent any amount of time in the area will eventually hear someone say the phrase "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee".

But what does it mean?

First - let's clarify the issue in that we're talking about three different but related issues:  One - what is "Gitche Gumee"? Two - why is Lake Superior often called "Gitche Gumee"? And finally - three - why do people use the phrase "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee"?

Brighton Beach shoreline of Lake Superior in Duluth, MN
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

Gitche Gumee

Before Lake Superior was given the name "Lake Superior" and long before the first settlements appeared, the Ojibwe gave the largest of the Great Lakes the name "gichi-gami"; a loose translation of the name means "great sea".

Because early history was less about the printed word and more about audible use, there are some other slight variations on the name and on its eventual use.  Some sources detail that the Ojibwe used the phrase "Ojibwe Gichigami" - which is translated as "Ojibwe's Great Sea" - for the lake that became Superior.  There are also sources that cite its early name as "Anishinaabe Gichigami" - which would translate to "Anishinaabe's Great Sea".

Whichever of these initial uses and variations is most-accurate, it's understood that the most-recognized "official" written form of the name came when Father Frederic Baraga published the first printed dictionary for the Ojibway language in 1878; in that publication, the name for the lake was "Otchipwe-kitchi-gami" - which was a "transliteration of Ojibwe Gichigami".

Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

Lake Superior

Obviously, the body of water that's become known as Lake Superior was around a lot longer than when man first discovered it. Geologists point to it's origins as part of the "North American Mid-Continent Rift" that occurred "1.1 to 1.2 billion years ago".  That rift "produced a huge plume of hot mantle where the present lake sits.  The crust tore apart, leaving an arc-shaped scar stretching form (sic) Kansas through Minnesota, then down to Michigan".

The "discovery" of the body of water came at some point in the 17th century.  That's when "French explorers approached the great inland sea by way of the Ottawa River and Lake Huron".  Those French explorers referred to their "discovery" as "le lac superieur" - which means translates to "the upper lake" - referring to its geographic location to Lake Huron, which has been "discovered" already.

For a brief period of time after the "le lac Superieur" nomenclature was applied, 17th-century Jesuit missionaries called the body of water "Lac Tracy" - for Alexandre de Prouville de Tracy - a French aristocrat and military leader.

It was finally in the 1760's that the first use of "Lake Superior" was recorded.  After the British took control of the body of water from the French, they "anglicized the lake's name to Superior" - "on account of it being superior in magnitude to any of the lakes on that vast continent [of North America]".

Aerial Lift Bridge on Lake Superior in Duluth, MN
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

The Big Lake They Call Gitche Gumee

So now that you know the history of Lake Superior and its earliest names (i.e. Gitche Gumee), there is one of our three questions remaining to be answered.

In addition to Northlanders referring to Lake Superior as "Gitche Gumee", you'll also hear some people use the phrase "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee" - as if that's some understood part of its name.

In doing the research for this article, I asked a few people about the phrase "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee".  Most believed that the word "the big lake they call" in front of Gitche Gumee belonged there as some part of a translation or something.

But that's not right.

The first use of the phrase "the big lake they call Gitche Gumee" comes from the 1976 song by Canadian songwriter Gordon Lightfoot about the 1975 sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. The opening line of the song includes those words.

While Lightfoot's song lyrics use the past tense in the phrase, it's become present tense in its colloquial use.

Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth
Nick Cooper - TSM Duluth

Brief history on the SS Edmund Fitzgerald:  First launched in 1958, it operated on the Great Lakes carrying iron ore for US Steel.  On the evening of November 9, 1975, it left the Superior, Wisconsin port bound for a steel mill in Detroit. A severe storm that produced "near hurricane-force winds" sunk the ship on November 10, 1975.

*"The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald", written by Gordon Lightfoot, ASCAP.  Author implies no ownership.

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