BARABOO — Wisconsinites are a trusting people. A lot of us leave our front doors unlocked. Some even leave the keys in the snowmobile when they park outside the tavern. We take people at their word, unless they serve in the Legislature.
But there are surefire ways to get cheeseheads to give you the hairy eyeball. Walking around in Chicago Bears gear, for starters. And ordering Budweiser. But the fastest way to out yourself as an outsider is failing to pronounce Oconomowoc. Or Kaukauna. Or Weyauwega.
Like I said, we tend to give people the benefit of the doubt, even if they’re flatlanders passing us on the freeway at Mach 3 or Taiwanese tech tycoons yanking us around over whether they’re going to build a factory in Racine County. We don’t go in assuming outsiders are dealing from the bottom of the euchre deck.
But just as there are ways to show you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Wisconsinite — ordering a brandy old fashioned at the supper club, for example, or genuflecting at any mention of Bart Starr — certain missteps can make newcomers stick out like sore thumbs. (Which, incidentally, is what we got after using our phones to protest the Brewers changing the name of Miller Park.) You want examples? Not knowing how to polka. Failing to become enraged at the sight of colored margarine. And not knowing how to pronounce basic words such as bratwurst (BRAHT-worst) and Wauwatosa (WAH-wah-TOH-sah).
Native Americans gave many Wisconsin communities names that tend to tie tongues. If you can correctly pronounce Oconomowoc — Oh-CON-oh-moh-wock — you’ll pass as a born and bred cheesehead. Extra credit if you can spell it: Just remember, it has five o’s. These are not to be confused with the four o’s in the Minnesota Vikings’ Super Bowl won-loss record.
Lambeau Field is nestled next to Ashwaubenon (Ash-WAH-buh-non) just up the Lake Michigan coast from Manitowoc (MAN-i-toh-woc) and not far from Kaukauna (Caw-CAW-nah) and Weyauwega (WHY-a-WE-gah). Way up north, where the ice fishermen say the walleye are biting something fierce, we have Minocqua (Muh-NOCK-wah).
I imagine these names are difficult for the uninitiated to grasp. They’re the linguistic equivalent of Steve Bartman trying to snare a foul ball at Wrigley Field. It isn’t every state that has a Waukesha (WALK-e-shaw) and a Menomonie (Meh-NOM-uh-nee) and, my personal favorite, Mukwonago (Muck-WAHN-ago). Say that 10 times fast and it loses all meaning, like a promise from the Legislature.
It’s all right if some people struggle to pronounce the names of these places. We welcome all kinds here in our cozy home between the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes. Heck, we’re even willing to show you the ways of the world here. We’ll happily introduce you to Spotted Cow, Friday night fish frys and the “Beer Barrel Polka.” We might even take you to Camp Randall and show you how to suggest that fans in the next section either, um, “eat chips” or “fondue.” We aren’t generally potty mouths, but we can get a little loose after a couple milkshakes at Mickie’s Dairy Bar.
Just in case you came here from the Land of 10,000 Lakes or the Land of 10,000 Toll Booths or some other state that can only wish it invented kindergarten and the ice cream sundae, I thought I’d give you some hints on sounding like a native Wisconsinite. Next time you’re down to the supper club, why, order an old-fashioned and some deep-fried cheese curds and proudly tell the bartender you’re from MAN-i-toh-wock. It’s best to attempt this tongue-twister before ordering your second drink. Remember, the best way to blend in among Wisconsinites — and gain their trust — is to order that second drink.