Between the Rows: True Definition

Published online: Nov 09, 2020 Below the Surface
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This article appears in Potato Grower Magazine’s 2020 Idaho Annual issue.

Have you ever heard the story of where Idaho got its name? What it means? Come on, you native sons and daughters, rack your brains. Surely it’s in there somewhere, mixed up among all those mental files of birthdays, irrigation district meetings and outrageous promises made by politicians.

No? That’s okay; I’ve lived in Idaho most of my life and have received the entirety of my formal education here, and I had never heard the story until a couple weeks ago. If someone had pressed me, I probably would’ve guessed it was derived some an Indian word that meant something inspiring. And I would’ve been wrong.

Apparently the story begins with an unscrupulous doctor turned gold prospector named George Willing, who had actually lost the election to serve as the delegate to Congress for the territory that would eventually be named Colorado. Yet somehow Willing, with no formal authority to do so, proposed the name “Idaho” for the newly formed territory, claiming it was a Shoshone word meaning “the sun comes from the mountains” or “gem of the mountains.” To put it politely, he was full of it. “Idaho” is not and never was Shoshone, nor, apparently, did it ever mean … anything. Nobody seems to be sure how or why he came up with the name, but historians do agree that Willing, apparently, just made it up.

Regardless, people in the West liked the sound of it. Some years later, Mr. Willing got his wish, and a territory that later became a state was officially named Idaho.

If you’re disappointed about the origins of the name of the greatest state in the Union, I don’t blame you. Even our nickname, the Gem State, is based on the ravings of a guy who had to lie just to get into the meeting where he could tell another lie to try to impress the right people.

In another sense, though, who cares where the name came from or what it means? I haven’t studied the etymology of every one of the 50 states, but I’m guessing not many have a story as fun and swashbuckling as Idaho’s. In fact, I think it might even make for a fun historical comedy, starring a fast-talking, well-dressed Ryan Reynolds as George Willing.

In any event, it doesn’t much matter what any name was originally supposed to mean. If you’ve had the privilege (and almost overwhelming responsibility) of naming a human being lately, you’re sure to have pored over endless pages of baby names, accompanied by their language of origin and meanings. But here’s the thing: whether the name you picked means “warrior” or “life” or “peace” or “gem of the mountains,” it only takes an hour or two for the name to actually mean only one thing: that precious, amazing little life squirming in your arms, and everything he or she will grow to be in the coming years.

It’s the same thing with the name of a place. Sure, from a purely academic standpoint, maybe the word “Idaho” is pure nonsense. It doesn’t mean anything at all; our state might as well be named Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. But from a more romantic, sentimental and, let’s be honest, practical point of view, Idaho means a whole heck of a lot.

Idaho means chatting as the tractors warm up and your breath forms little clouds, waiting for the sun to rise high enough to melt off the frost before you start digging spuds. It means a skinny linebacker not bothering to wash 10 hours’ worth of harvest dirt from his arms and face before pulling on his one-size-too-large-but-it-makes-me-look-tougher shoulder pads for the big game; and the homecoming queen cutting out of her shift on the conveyor early to make sure she does have enough time to get all the dust out of her hair and ears before the dance.

Idaho is rolling down the windows after a storm and mentally debating for the thousandth time whether the sagebrush smells sweet or savory. It’s praying for rain in early June and for clear skies in late September. It’s cussing 15-year-old drivers all year, then thanking the good Lord for them come harvest. It’s a monster buck grazing the edge of your alfalfa field all year, then disappearing into the high country the second the hunt opens.

To me, at least, Idaho means the Tetons and Sawtooths and Cache Peak and Independence Lakes. It means Poleline and Golden Valley, Yellowstone Highway and that stupid 84/86 interchange that will apparently never be finished. It means license plates unabashedly and unironically proclaiming “Famous Potatoes.”

I don’t care what the historians and linguists say. In the language of the locals, Idaho means one thing: Home.