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My word! You can't call a creek an ethnic slur

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Lake County Two Harbors, 55616
Two Harbors Minnesota 109 Waterfront Dr. 55616

Rather than repeat it, let's just call it an ethnic slur that rhymes with bagel. And even if it's self-applied, it's still derogatory.

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So it was more than a little surprising to find it in a Lake County Sheriff's Office report recently.

"Traffic stop on Hwy. 3 at (That word) Creek. Citation for speed," it said.

"What?" I exclaimed. They can't call it that, and even if they can, we're not putting it in the paper -- meaning Lake County News-Chronicle readers that week would have to guess exactly where on Highway 3 the alleged leadfoot was nabbed.

It really is the official name, however, and it's not the only one in the state.

"I see two features officially named that," Pete Boulay, the resident expert on geographic names for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, said from St. Paul. Along with the creek that flows into the Gooseberry River, there's a lake by that name in Pine County. Both are in the federal and state name databases.

Why precisely it was named is harder to say, though there is local folklore of Italians once populating a nearby work camp.

"I don't see it in Upham's geographic names book, which is the definitive book on old names," Boulay said of a volume published in 1920 by Warren Upham (described by the DNR as "a compulsive collector of minutiae.")

"Lake County's pretty colorful. There are a lot of interesting names there," he continued.

"Phantom Lake is a good one. And Zephyr Lake. How would they come up with the name Zephyr in Lake County? One of the weird ones is Weapon Lake, which used to be called Tomahawk Lake."

That change probably was an expression of sensitivity toward American Indians, similar to a campaign that Minnesotans can proudly proclaim led the state to be the first in the nation to get rid of S-word place names that turned out to be sexually explicit references to women.

Similarly, the most infamous slur -- the N-word -- has shown up around the country, in Lake County prefacing Hill Village. Supposedly, it was named for a type of locomotive, though there's less folklore on how the engine got its name.

Thankfully, the name has been long abandoned, as has the town. But the creek with the Italian slur keeps rolling along. And even if we kept the word out of the News-Chronicle, it showed up in the News Tribune: in obituaries of Italian Americans who themselves used the word as a nickname, and in a review of Duluth's Valentini's Vicino Lago.

"We have a menu item called Taco (That word again)," Carol Valentini said of a Mexican-Italian combo dish. "Everybody likes it."

Indeed; it got a good review. But the name?

"We deliberated about it. That's what we always called it," she said, adding that growing up on the Range, it was what Italians called themselves. She also took the time to find one explanation showing it stemmed from "Diego," an unkind reference to Spaniards later extended to Italians.

Likewise, Gene Nicolelli of Hibbing traces another Italian slur to the abbreviation for "without papers," and says it once referred to undocumented Finns in the area as well.

With the rise of hip-hop, usage of the N-word has exploded, sparking endless debate on why it's OK for members of a group to use loaded terms in reference to themselves when others cannot. That's nothing I'll even attempt to resolve here.

But a slur on an official map is something else -- except I can't resolve that either, as long as I live in St. Louis County.

"You'd have to have a petition with 15 signatures. The people who sign the petition have to be registered voters in the county," Boulay said of official name-changing rules, suggesting: "If you want to change a name, you should have a name in mind."

Zephyr's nice, but it's taken. And don't even think about Bagel. Or Taco.

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune and supervising editor of the Lake County News-Chronicle. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com.

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