TERRE HAUTE —
I fielded an hilariously disturbing question recently.
A friend asked if the word “Hautean” is meant to be a derogatory label.
I laughed and quickly assured him it was quite the opposite, and that “Hautean” reflects a kinship, a virtual term of endearment for those of us who call this place home.
Later, as I pondered more, I began to doubt myself, mentally replaying past conversations when people told me, “You’re so Hautean” or “What a Hautean thing to say” or “You’re a good Hautean.” Flattery or subtle digs, I wondered. Or did “Hautean” merely describe my residential geography, as in “You’re so (blessed with a lifetime of experiences in this western Indiana community)”?
Ultimately, I concluded, we Hauteans define ourselves.
That isn’t a simple task. There are a lot of us — 61,000 in the city, surrounded by another 44,000 elsewhere in Vigo County. It’s hard for that many folks — neighborly as we might be — to agree on anything.
But when it comes to our name, as individual residents and a community, let’s give it a try.
“Hautean” is a good place to start.
This word describing an inhabitant of this town should be spelled as such, Hautean. It is often misspelled as “Hautian,” tempting your spellchecker to change it to Haitian or Martian. Think Chicago. Second City residents are Chicagoans, not Chicagoians. Likewise, we are Hauteans.
With the spelling confirmed, next consider the pronunciation. As most longtime locals will attest, the colloquial pronunciation is “ho-shun.” (Please attach no underlying significance to that phonetic spelling.) Outsiders reveal themselves by referring to us as “hoat-E-uns,” “hoot-E-uns” or even the Lisa Douglas style “terry hoot-E-uns.” They might as well follow up by saying, “Take me to your leader.” Hautean rhymes with ocean, motion and potion. The official pronunciation is “ho-shun.”
As parents put it, because we said so. “We,” as in Hauteans in general.
“It’s Hauteans, and Hauteans call themselves Hauteans,” said Ron Baker, author of “From Needmore to Prosperity: Hoosier Place Names in Folklore and History.” Baker retired in 2006 after 40 years as a professor of English at Indiana State University, the last 26 as the department chairman. Local culture determines the definitive way to say a town’s name, he said.
Take the northern Indiana city of Hobart. People there say, “ho-burt,” Baker said, while the rest of the world says, “ho-bart.” Thus, it’s “ho-burt.”
The same goes for Hautean (ho-shun).
“If that’s the way Hauteans pronounce it, that’s the way it should be pronounced,” Baker explained.
“Hautean” isn’t universally maligned or misspoken by those beyond the Wabash Valley. The co-host of a Champaign, Ill., radio program nailed the pronunciation during the station’s Friday morning show, causing me to do a double-take (a reaction that doesn’t make much sense with a transistor radio). Most others, though, struggle with our town’s name, bestowed upon us by French fur traders centuries ago.
Non-locals “would normally call it ‘terry hut’ or ‘terry hout,’” Baker said.
Those trappers chose Terre Haute for its French definition — “high ground.” They almost certainly pronounced it differently than 21st-century Hauteans.
The precise French pronunciation of the city’s name is “tair oat,” explained Keri Yousif, associate professor of French in the ISU Department of Language, Literature and Linguistics.
Yousif came to ISU nine years ago from Seattle. She quickly found that her students, like the general public here, used the common pronunciation “tair-uh hote.” She did her best to enlighten them.
“When I first came to Terre Haute, I began a one-woman campaign to get my students to pronounce it correctly,” Yousif said. Eventually, she “evolved,” she recalled, with a chuckle. A city’s pronunciation is “adapted locally,” she acknowledged. “I’ve just kind of accepted that it’s part of the local culture.”
Still, her delicate, European inflection on “tair oat” sounded fascinating. Even more intriguing was Yousif’s interpretation of “Hauteans.” Those pioneer French trappers would not have called themselves the original “ho-shuns.” In fact, such “e-a-n-s” endings wouldn’t be used at all, she said. If anything, the French pronunciation of Hauteans might sound something like “oat wahz,” Yousif said.
Just knowing that makes this Hautean feel a bit more sophisticated.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.