How Embarrass, Minn., Got Its Name

And what lumber’s got to do with it.

Residents of the Northeast and Upper Midwest are suffering through a bitter cold snap, brought on by a giant whoosh of arctic air. Monday’s lowest temperature was recorded in the town of Embarrass, Minn., where the mercury dipped to 54 degrees below zero. How did Embarrass, with a population just shy of 700, get its unusual name?

Frustrated French priests and fur trappers helped dub the town back in the 1700s, as they tried to navigate the twisty, driftwood-strewn river that flows through the area. The chunks of wood, frequent curves, and low water levels wreaked havoc on canoeists; French-Canadian lumberjacks also cursed the river, as their fresh-cut logs frequently became stranded while floating downstream. So, the French called it Rivière d’Embarras—best translated as “River of Obstacles” or “River of Obstructions.” The anglicized version, Embarrass River, started showing up on territorial maps in the early 19th century.

The town didn’t sprout up until much later when it was settled mainly by Finnish immigrants around the turn of the 20th century. (The township was formally organized in 1905.) Perhaps the settlers’ initial unfamiliarity with English explains their willingness to adopt the river’s name for their town—something that a modern PR professional might advise against.

Today’s residents seem to take considerable pride in their frigid hamlet’s unorthodox name, refusing to opt for a less embarrassing pronunciation. They stick with “em-BARE-ess” despite the alternative offered by Illinoisans, who have an Embarras River (with one fewer “s”) of their own. The etymology may be the same, but the Illinois version is pronounced “AM-brah.”

Next question?

Explainer thanks Marjorie Nugent of the Minnesota Historical Society.