“I am glad I have looked upon the Mississippi… it is indeed an extraordinary sight – a river over 3000 miles long, and from a mile to one and a half miles wide, traversing 18 degrees of latitude, from the Arctic to the equator, over more degrees of latitude than any other river in the world….’ wrote Eliza R. Steele in her book ‘Summer Journeys in the West’ in 1841.

She adds, “….some writers call this river the Miss Sipi, ‘father of waters’, while others tell us its name is Namaesi Sipu, ‘Fish River’…”. There are not many clues apart from this to settle the question of how this river got its name.

‘Animisha’ (अनिमिष) is Sanskrit for ‘fish’. With a dropped syllable, as it happens when distortions enter a language, one is left with ‘nimisha’. In Zeisberger’s ‘Indian dictionary’ the Onondagan word for ‘fish’ appears as ‘namees’.

In the book ‘History of Pittsburgh and environs: from prehistoric days to the present, Volume 1 online’, the Mississipi is referred to as the NamaH. Namah (नमः) is a Sanskrit word which means ‘to bow’, it is a greeting. Much as this meaning may do justice to the greatness of the river, the fact remains that ‘namah’ is always translated as ‘fish’ in Native American languages, and therefore, the Sanskrit ‘namah’ may not quite explain the name. But the Native American Onondagan word ‘namees’ meaning ‘fish’ can be explained by the Sanskrit ‘animisha’ meaning fish!

The Mississippi

It is also then widely accepted that Mississippi translates as ‘Father of Rivers’ or ‘Great River’ from the Ojibwe ‘misi ziibi’. However Albert Gallatin states in his ‘A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes Within the United States’, “Mississippi never means father but in several dialects ‘all, whole’…..I think therefore the proper meaning of Missinipi* and Mississipi, to be respectively, ‘the whole water’ and the ‘whole river’…”.  *Missinipi is now known as the Churchill and its waters fall into the Mississipi.

Gallatin speaks of the Missinipi and Mississippi thus, “..Missinipi, not to be confounded with the Mississipi. Both are Algonkin denominations, the first derived from nipi, water; the last from sipi river. Both designations are equally appropriate. Rivers united form the Mississippi. The Missinipi receives and collects the waters of ponds and lakes.”Interestingly, ‘nipa’ (निपा) is Sanskrit for ‘water’. The closest Sanskrit cognate to ‘sipa’ and ‘sipu’ is ‘sipr’ (सिप्र) with the meaning ‘ooze’ or ‘seep’. 

The Ojibwe and Algonquin name for the river is Anishinaabe which too can be explained with the help of English. Anisha (अनिश) is ‘incessant’. ‘Nabha’ (नभ ) is a versatile word in Sanskrit and in its many forms has the meaning of sky, ‘nabhas’ (नभस) is cloud, mist and vapour, ‘nabhya’ (नभ्य) is cloudy or moist, ‘nabhasa’ (नभस) is ‘celestial’, ‘heavenly’ or ‘ocean’.
Suggested Links:

1. American Historical Society Essays by George Thorntons
2. The Lenape and their legends
3. Summer Journeys in the West by Eliza R. Steele
4. Zeisberger’s Indian Dictionary
5. American Antiquities: Revisiting the Origins of American Archaeology by Terry A. Barnhart
6. A Synopsis of the Indian tribes within the United States

7. United States Geological Survey


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