12 Iowa towns that are constantly mispronounced

Photo courtesy of Buena Vista University

By Amie Rivers

May 22, 2024

How many of these town names do you really know?

If you’re wondering how European immigrants came up with some of these Iowa town names in the 19th century, and then proceeded to pronounce them the craziest ways you can imagine, read on.

Read: Iowa Weird: The History Behind These Iowa Towns’ Color-Themed Names

Buena Vista (Clinton County unincorporated community, county name in western Iowa, university name in Storm Lake)

How’d it get that name? R.I. Jencks, a ferryman, named his boat “Buena Vista” after the Battle of Buena Vista in 1847, during the Mexican-American War. Though it wasn’t clear who won the battle, it was big news at the time.

How it’s pronounced in Mexico: bw-AY-nuh VEE-stuh (it translates to “beautiful view”)

How it’s pronounced in Buena Vista, Iowa: b-YOO-nuh VIS-tuh

Read: 10 Iowa Small Towns You Must Make The Time To Explore

Chillicothe (city in Wapello County)

How’d it get that name? From the Shawnee Indigenous tribe, which used Chalahgawatha to mean “principal town,” or the home of their current chief. To the tribe, the name wasn’t fixed, and moved around depending on where the home of their principal leader was.

How it’s pronounced in the native Shawnee tribal language: Not only a different pronunciation, but a totally different spelling: “Chalahgawatha.” (We couldn’t find a reliable pronunciation for that.)

How it’s pronounced in Chillicothe, Iowa: CHILL-uh-caw-thee

Read: Small Towns In Iowa That Go All Out for Christmas

Gaza (unincorporated town in O’Brien County)

How’d it get that name? It was named after Gaza, the city in Palestine, upon its incorporation in 1888. (The municipality of Gaza itself was established in 1893, though Gaza has been inhabited under that name for at least 5,000 years, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.)

How it’s pronounced in Gaza, Palestine: GAH-zuh

How it’s pronounced in Gaza, Iowa: GAY-zuh

Read: Where to tuck into a serious weekend breakfast in Eastern Iowa

Guttenberg (city in Clayton County)

How’d it get that name? The German immigrants who began to flood the area in the 1800s named it after German inventor Johannes Gutenberg, who invented a faster movable-type printing press in the mid-1400s. The city library also has a Gutenberg Bible replica on display.

How Gutenberg pronounced his name: GOO-tun-burg

How it’s pronounced in Guttenberg, Iowa: GUH-ten-burg

Read: Iowa’s Coolest Vintage Movie Theaters Still in Operation Today

Houghton (city in Lee County)

How’d it get that name? While the internet wasn’t helpful here, Lee County Library Director Sarah Clendineng was! She pointed to a book “a lot of libraries in Iowa” have, called “From Ackley to Zwingle: The Origins of Iowa Place Names” by Harold E. Dilts. And according to Dilts (via Clendineng), “it was named after John Hough, an early postmaster and landowner there.”

How the name Hough is generally pronounced: HUFF

How it’s pronounced in Houghton, Iowa: HUFF-tun

Read: Geo Treasure Hunting in Iowa: Your Guide to Rockhounding in the Hawkeye State

Madrid (city in Boone County)

How’d it get that name? Originally named Swede Point after an influx of Swedish immigrants in 1846, it was changed to Madrid in 1883, apparently in a fit of petty rage you can read about here.

How it’s pronounced in Madrid, Spain: muhd-REED (roll that R!)

How it’s pronounced in Madrid, Iowa: MAA-drid (do not bother rolling the R)

Read: 7 Small-Town Iowa Burger Spots You Have To Try

Maurice (city in Sioux County)

How’d it get that name? After Maurice, Prince of Orange and stadtholder of several Dutch provinces in the late 1500s and early 1600s. It’s possible that was influenced by Dutch immigrants, who numbered 133 in Sioux County by 1870.

How it’s pronounced as a regular name: mohr-EES

How it’s pronounced in Maurice, Iowa: MOHR-iss

Read: 8 Things You Didn’t Know Were Invented In Iowa

Nevada (city in Story County)

How’d it get that name? After it was platted in 1853, a local European immigrant named the town after his daughter, Sierra Nevada, herself named after the mountain range in California.

How it’s pronounced as the Sierra Nevada mountain range: nuh-VAH-duh

How it’s pronounced in the State of Nevada: nuh-VAA-duh

How it’s pronounced in Nevada, Iowa: nuh-VAY-duh

Read: 6 Weird Town Names In Iowa And Their Origins

Ocheyedan (city in Osceola County)

How’d it get that name? According to old town legend, Dakota or Sioux Indigenous people called the area “Acheya” or “Akicheya,” which roughly means “mourning ground.” Native folks reportedly told Europeans they were living on places where two Indigenous boys had been killed. (In 2019, Reader’s Digest magazine named Ocheyedan the state’s most difficult-to-pronounce town!)

How it’s pronounced: In the Dakota language, the word for “mourning” is “wasihda,” while the Lakota/Sioux word for “mourning” is “wasigla,” neither of which are super close. (We couldn’t find a reliable pronunciation for these.)

How it’s pronounced in Ocheyedan, Iowa: oh-CHEE-den

Read: 9 Must-Visit Destinations In Iowa You Can Get Into For Free

Sigourney (city in Keokuk County)

How’d it get that name? County commissioner Dr. George H. Stone named the town after a popular poet at the time, Lydia Sigourney of Connecticut. In appreciation of their naming the town after her, Sigourney apparently paid for several trees to be planted in the town’s courtyard. There is also a large oil painting of Lydia Sigourney at the Keokuk County Courthouse in Sigourney.

How it’s pronounced by Lydia Sigourney: SIG-err-knee

How it’s pronounced by Academy Award-nominated actor Sigourney Weaver: sig-OR-knee

How it’s pronounced in Sigourney, Iowa: SIG-err-knee

Read: 5 Things to Do With a Friend Visiting Iowa for the First Time

Tripoli (city in Bremer County)

How’d it get that name? Founded in 1880, it was named after the 1804 Second Battle of Tripoli Harbor, a naval battle during the First Barbary War between the US (with Sweden) and the Ottoman Empire.

How it’s pronounced in Tripoli, Libya: TRIP-uh-lee

How it’s pronounced in Tripoli, Iowa: truh-POLE-uh

Read: Iowa Weird: Here’s Why Kossuth Is Iowa’s Biggest County

What Cheer (city in Keokuk County)

How’d it get that name? It was originally founded as Petersburg in 1865 after the town’s founder, Peter Britton. But the Post Office, for unspecified reasons (too common?), rejected that name. So resident and Civil War veteran Joseph Andrews suggested What Cheer, an ancient English greeting dating back to the 15th century, which may also have been uttered by a Scottish miner upon discovering coal there.

How the two words “what” and “cheer” are normally pronounced: WUT. CHEER.

How it’s pronounced in What Cheer, Iowa: WATT-cheer

  • Amie Rivers

    Amie Rivers is Starting Line's community editor, labor reporter and newsletter snarker-in-chief. Previously, she was an award-winning journalist at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier; now, she very much enjoys making TikToks and memes. Send all story tips and pet photos to [email protected] and sign up for our newsletter here.

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