Mesaba, Missabe or Mesabi? What's correct? - Perfect Duluth Day

Mesaba, Missabe or Mesabi? What’s correct?

This is a perfect question for all you PDDers. Is Mesaba spelled Mesaba, Missabe or Mesabi? Was the street named after the area of Northern Minnesota? The two are spelled different. What was the building named after? It has a third spelling. I’ve lived here 25 years and am still trying to figure this out. Help!


Paul Lundgren

about 9 years ago

The various versions of spelling all come from the Ojibwe phrase "misaabe-wajiw," as explained in the Perfect Duluth Day Writer's Guide:

Mesaba Avenue is the proper name for the street that runs along the western edge of Downtown Duluth and the Central Hillside. Mesabi Iron Range is the proper name for the largest of four major iron ore deposits in Minnesota’s Iron Range. The Mesabi Range is located primarily in Itasca and St. Louis counties; it was known to the local Ojibwe as Misaabe-wajiw, which means “Giant’s Mountain” or “Big-man’s Mountain.” Mesabi Range College is a two-year college with campuses in Virginia and Eveleth, named after the Mesabi Iron Range. It was originally named Mesabi Range Community and Technical College; the name was shortened in 2014. Missabe Building is the proper name for the building that stands at 227 W. First St. Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range Railway Co. (abbreviated DM&IR) is the former name of a railroad organization in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin now known as Wisconsin Central Ltd. It is a subsidiary of Canadian National Railway, which acquired it in 2004 from Great Lakes Transportation. The DM&IR name was dropped at the end of 2011, when CN merged it with the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific Railway Co. and the Wisconsin Central. The DM&IR moves Iron Range taconite to Duluth and Two Harbors for shipment to the lower Great Lakes.
Of course, none of this answers the question, "Why in the flippin'-misaabe-wajiw would the five things above have three different spellings?" But it at least lays out some background and a distinction between which spelling goes with which thing.


about 9 years ago

Ojibwa is a spoken language, not written. The contemporary "written" words use English as a way to phonetically define proper pronunciation. Because of this, many historical Ojibwa words are spelled multiple ways.


about 9 years ago

Incidentally, Tim's answer hints of similar situation when romanizing a spoken language - Ojibwe vs Ojibwa vs Chippewa. 

In the Duluth area, a particular system of romanization and vowel orthography is common - I can't remember for the life of me the name of the system I learned in two years of Ojibwemowin at UMD. I think the orthographic system was called the "double vowel orthography" if memory serves. Other areas may prefer different systems. 

If this system had been followed, it wouldn't be Mesaba, Mesabi, and Missabe, it'd be Misaabe as in Paul's answer.

Chris Machmer

about 5 years ago

To add a wrinkle to this - Mesaba Avenue used to be Mesabi Avenue when I was a kid. Not sure when they changed it, but I'm 46, and I think it was sometime before I started driving. When I give someone directions, I still call it "Mesabi."

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