What’s in a Name?

Bart and I tossed around several names for our new ranch last year. In the end, we chose Coulee Creek Ranch – not because we are die-hard fans of the other CCR – but for the simple fact that Coulee Creek itself runs through the property. Additionally, we built our barn and corrals in a little coulee on the property. We both spend most of the day “out in the coulee” working in our garden or building fences and taking care of the herd. Soon we will have a cabin out in the coulee too. It is our little piece of heaven.

When I talk about Coulee Creek Ranch with my relatives and friends from out-of-state, they are often confused by the name. “What, exactly,” they ask, “is a coulee?” And “how do you spell that?” Even the spell checker on this WordPress blog questions my repeated use of the word coulee. It suggests that I replace it with “couple” or “college” or even “coffee”. While there is a Coffee Creek in Montana and I love to drink a strong cup every morning, Coffee Creek is nowhere near Lavina and Bart despises the stuff (yes, even the smell).

I didn’t realize how unusual or unfamiliar the word “coulee” really was until this past year. I suppose I had become accustomed to it through seven years of life with Bart and my growing familiarity with Lavina. So I had to chuckle when my sister Susanne sent me an article by Linton Weeks (2015) entitled “Do We Talk Funny? 51 American Colloquialisms“. I discovered that the word unique to Montana is… you guessed it… coulee. It means “a valley”. According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), regionalisms persist across the United States despite our increasingly homogenized culture. I recognized a few of the other words on the list complied by DARE in Week’s article: skijoring for Alaska (we do that here too) and colchon for New Mexico (which is Spanish for mattress).

Strangely though, I had never heard the word characteristic of my home state of New York (spiedie — a marinated meat sandwich). My hunch is that spiedies must be unique to New York City, which really could be a whole state unto itself. The rest of New York State – including my hometown of Rochester – is nothing like the City. I often have to explain this geographic fact to my western friends and family. I grew up seven hours from New York City, I’ve only been there twice, and I have no idea what life in the Big Apple is like. Similarly, now I must explain to my friends and family back East that a coulee is a valley, it’s spelled c-o-u-l-e-e, and we have the unique pleasure of living on the banks of Coulee Creek.

Riding home into the coulee in  early February - another photo by the talented Alexis Bonogfsky
Riding home to the coulee in early February – another photo by the talented Alexis Bonogofsky