Origins, Pronunciation, and Variants of the Word Niagara

An Aerial view of The American Falls Frozen Over in the Winter of 1934.  Courtesy of Niagara Falls Public Library 




Origins of the Word Niagara

There are different theories of the origins of the word “Niagara.”

E.G. Holland writes in stanza 16 of his poem Niagara (published in 1861, theories and opinions have revised since then):
But when thy Voice drew men to hear
‡‡The mighty words thy soul would speak,
Who came to listen at thy feet ?
‡‡Did scholars first thy lessons seek ?
The wild man came and was at home
‡‡Amidst thy grandeurs deep and wild ;
For he through nature’s realm did roam
‡‡And was her free unlettered child.
He saw thy form, he heard thy lay,
Then, spake the word, ” Niagara !”

From Note 21 of the same poem:
“The word Niagara, of Indian derivation, seems, both from its meaning, to wit, the thunder of the waters, and from the inexpressible analogies of sound that often happily unite the names and attributes of objects, to be the most appropriate appellation possible for the wonder it designates.”

Philip D. Mason. Niagara: A Guide to the Niagara Frontier With Maps and Photographs. Niagara Falls, Ont.: Travelpic Publications, 1965.

The word ‘Onguiaahra’ appears on maps as early as 1641. Both it and the later version, ‘Ongiara’ are Indian words generally interpreted as meaning ‘The Straight’, although the more romantic ‘Thunder of Waters’ is sometimes given. By the time the first white men arrived at the Falls, the name in general use was ‘Niagara’. . . . When the first white men settled here, Niagara was occupied by a tribe of Iroquois or Six Nations Indians, who had themselves driven out or annihilated the earliest recorded inhabitants, the Neutral Indians

Pronunciation of the Word Niagara

From Frank H. Severance,   Old Trails on the Niagara Frontier.  Buffalo:  The Matthews-Northrup Co.,  1899, when discussing the lines “Where wild Oswego spreads her swamps around / And Niagara stuns with thundering sound” from Oliver Goldsmith’s The Traveller; or, A Prospect of Society:

The pronunciation of “Niagara” here, the reader will remark, is necessarily with the primary accent on the third syllable; the correct pronunciation, as eminent authorities maintain ; and, as I hold, the more musical “Ni-ag’-a-ra” gives us one hard syllable; “Ni (or better, Nee) -a-ga’-ra” makes each syllable end in a vowel, and softens the word to the ear. “Ni-ag’-a-ra” would have been impossible to the Iroquois tongue. But the word is now too fixed in its perverted usage to make reform likely, and
we may expect to hear the harsh “Ni-ag’-a-ra” to the end of the chapter.

Variants of the Word Niagara

Variants of the word “Niagara” occur on occasion. Probably the most common of these variants is a simple misspelling, omitting the second “a” resulting in “Niagra.”


In Alexander Wilson’s poem The Foresters when travellers asked about the increasingly load roar that they were hearing: “What noise is that?” we ask with anxious mien, / A dull salt-driver passing with his team /  “Noise? noise? — why nothing that I hear or see / But Nagra Falls — Pray, whereabouts live ye?”


Evelyn M. Watson wrote a poem entitled An Indian Cave at Ne-a-ga-ra, published in 1929.

Niagara the Greater.
Edwin Arnold in Seas and Lands, 1904 (p. 43) refers to the Horseshoe Falls as “Niagara the Greater”

In his poem St. Gualberto, Robert Southey wrote the lines:

The fountain streams that now in Christ-church stink,
Had niagara’d o’er the quadrangle;


E.G. Fowler published a poem in the Tri-State Union on October 21, 1886 with the title Niagaratic Impressions.  On December 29, 1887 Fowler used the term again in his poem Ah There ! Niagara ! again in the Tri-State Union : “I am an empathatic / Niagaratic !”
The line “America Niagarized the world” is found in the poem To the American Fall at Niagara by Douglas Brooke Wheelton Sladen, first published in 1889
Used in Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin.

[…] Brother / Commemorate me thus beautifully / Where by a lock niagarously roars / The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence /
Of mid-July. […]


The Urban Dictionary cites three definitions of Niagra, two of which appear to be simple misspellings. The third, however, appears intentional:

Slang for Viagra, Cialis or any other Erectile Dysfunction Meds. It is a combination of the word Viagra, Which is the most well know ED pill, and Niagara as in the popular water falls, because of the copious amounts of [semen] one produces while taking the Viagra. (Urban Dictionary, accessed January 30, 2021).