Origins of the Word Niagara
There are different theories of the origins of the word “Niagara.”
E.R. Baxter III writes in Looking for Niagara: the Seneca naming / the place Onnguiaahra (Ne-uh-ga’r-uh)
Fredrika Bremer stated that:
“Oniaagarah,” or “Ochniagarah,” was the original name of Niagara, and it is still called so by the Indians. The word signifies “the thunder of the waters.” It has been shortened by the Europeans into Niagara.
Source: Fredrika Bremer. Translated by Mary Howitt. The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, vol. 1. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1853
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
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The Indian in His Wigwam, or, Characteristics of the Red Race. Buffalo: Derby & Hewson, 1848.
It is not in unison , perhaps , with general expectation , to find that the exact translation of this name does not entirely fulfil poetic pre conception . By the term O – ne – aw – ga – ra , the Mohawks and their co – tribes described on the return of their war excursions , the neck of water which connects Lake Erie with Ontario . The term is derived from their name for the human neck . Whether this term was designed to have , as many of their names do , a symbolic import , and to denote the importance of this communication in geography , as connecting the head and heart of the country , can only be conjectured . Nor is it , in this instance , probable . When Europeans came to see the gigantic falls which marked the strait , it was natural that they should have supposed the name descriptive of that particular feature , rather than the entire river and portage . We have been assured , however , that it is not their original name for the water – fall , although with them , as with us , it may have absorbed this meaning.
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.
From Journal of a Day’s Journey in Upper Canada in October, 1816 by Erieus (Adam Hood Burwell) about the lines And shall I pass? No, turn and see / Thy wonders, famed Niagara.
[A note by the Editor of The Scribbler]: “The rhyme here would require Niagara to be pronounced Niagaree. It is singular that the name of this celebrated cataract should be pronounced in a totally different manner on this side of the Atlantic, from what it is in Europe. Here. and all over the new continent, it is pronounced, Niagara, Europeans call it Niagara, which is the way it is accented by Thomson, and the other English poets who have occasion to use it. As it is originally an Indian name, it would be worth while to inquire how the aborigines pronounced it; old inhabitants say that in their youth, it was pronounced even here, Niagāra.”
N.B. The whole poem is consistently rhymed AA BB CC DD and so on.
From A Legend of Goat Island by Peter A. Porter: The word Niagara is broken down into syllables with emphasis several times in the poem: The land on Ni-a-gáh-ra’s shore. Later: Saw Ni-a-gáh-ra, then unknown.
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.
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;
[…] 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).