When I was a freshly minted Minneapolitan, then-City Pages beer writer and current Racket beer writer Jerard Fagerberg imparted unto me a great deal of Twin Cities wisdom. The winters aren’t that bad, but you should buy a good coat. You’re going to hear more about Prince than you ever have in your life. And everyone resents that Kmart on Lake Street that bisects Nicollet Avenue.
“It’s pronounced Nick-lit, by the way,” he added. “If you say Nick-o-LETT, people will know you’re not from here right away.”
At least… I think he told me to use the “Nick-lit” pronunciation. By now I’ve heard so many different people say Nicollet in so many different ways that I almost can’t remember how I was first instructed to say it.
A call to Nicollet Hardware might be answered “Hello, Nickle-et Hardware,” but the crosswalk buttons along Nicollet blurt, “Walk sign is on, Nic-o-LETT Avenue.” On “Hornets! Hornets!”—surely one of the only pop-culture pronunciation guides for the Minneapolis thoroughfare—the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn sings that they “were living up at NICK-uh-lett and 66th with three skaters and some hoodrat chick.”
This is Minneapolis’s self-proclaimed main street—how come no two people pronounce it the same way?
I asked Lisa Middag, Director of Nicollet Activation at Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District and the point of contact at On Nicollet, whether she gets frequent questions about the pronunciation.
“Definitely,” Middag says. “Especially when people come in from out of town, they notice what they’re doing is different from how the local people do it, so they might ask for a quick clarification.”
Middag tries not to be prescriptive about the pronunciation. “When someone asks me, ‘How is this pronounced?’ instead of saying, ‘It’s pronounced X,’ I usually just say, ‘Well, I say this.'”
“I don’t even say I prefer it,” she laughs. “It’s too judgy.”
Since Middag started working for On Nicollet in 2017, she’s heard all kinds of pronunciations. Some people get rid of the center syllable entirely, and people emphasize all different parts of the word.
And she’s heard plenty of folks use the French pronunciation—Nic-o-lay, or Nee-co-lay—which certainly isn’t wrong given the French-ness of the name. The avenue is named for the 19th-century cartographer Joseph Nicollet (also known as Jean-Nicolas Nicollet), who led a series of expeditions in present-day Minnesota. (To make matters more confusing, Wisconsin’s Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest is named for another French explorer, Jean Nicolet, and the name of that park is pronounced Nic-o-lay.)
When I posed the question in a highly unscientific Twitter poll yesterday, almost 2,500 people voted for their preferred pronunciation, with lots of discourse about what was “right,” and lots more about why we pronounce it so many different ways.
Some speculate that the different pronunciations are generational. “My father-in-law worked in Minneapolis in the mid-60s and said it was Nick-oh-LAY at that point. (And these poll results notwithstanding I feel like I hear / say “NICK-let” more than anything),” James Norton at Heavy Table replied.
Some Wisconsinites chimed in to say they still pronounce it the French way: “I grew up in an area covered by the Chequamegon Nicollet National Forest, so I’m biased towards the French pronunciation. Still use it. Irritates dispatchers every time,” said Jacob Wilhelm.
Others, like Paul Schumann, think it’s a locals vs. transplants situation. “In Mankatoland, when locals (including those living in Nicollet) say it, I hear NICK-lit more often than anything else,” he replied, adding that said locals would correct him if he pronounced it any differently.
“Technically… it’s none of these, because there’s no heavy stress on any of the syllables, they’re all the same, this poll just shows how many of you aren’t from Minneapolis,” added Geoffrey Serdar—and hey, he ain’t wrong about that last part, but all polysyllabic words have stressed syllables, even if the emphasis is mild.
When I called Nicollet Hardware to find out how they say it, I got a similarly de-emphasized reply. “We’re all pretty much Minneapolis born and raised people, so I think we all say Nickle-et,” says Elena at Nicollet Hardware on Nicollet and 38th. “It definitely has a lot of pronunciations, but here in our ‘hood, for those who grew up around Nicollet—I hear Nickle-et.”
But even locals are split on what the correct locals-only pronunciation is. Some people eliminate that center “o” sound, some say it as a schwa, and folks seem split on whether it ends in “it” or “et.” There are seemingly infinite pronunciational permutations—and plenty of people weren’t even sure exactly how they pronounced it, or if indeed they only pronounced it a single way. “I wish I could revote because I’ve since said it out loud 17 more times and somehow came up with 18 pronunciations,” poll-taker Sara replied.
“I’ve gone over this so many times in my head, Nicollet doesn’t even sound like a real word anymore,” added Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks.
At the end of the day… maybe there’s no right answer? Language changes all the time; pronunciations evolve and shift; new words are invented or borrowed or go out of fashion.
“A living language has a lot of interpretations,” chuckles Middag. “I don’t know who’s to say what’s right.”
“It’s kind of a fun thing to debate,” she adds. “How do you say it?‘”