Maine: An Encyclopedia


Some terms are unique to Maine, others are just obscure but important to an understanding of the topics covered in this publication. All references listed here are from actual usage in the Encyclopedia and will be marked by a green italic font in the text. Locate the terms in context by conducting a keyword search.

Origins of town names, frequently from European roots, are noted in the articles about those towns.

Maine Indians have contributed substantially to place names. Maliseets, Micmacs, Penobscots and Passamaquoddies have lent their language to the names of rivers, streams, mountains and other features of the landscape. However, the contributions are complex.

No single “Indian” language explains the names. The Penobscot’s Abenaki name for a feature is likely to differ from the Passamaquoddy or Maliseet name. Occasionally Micmac words enter the mix.

Then there is the spelling. Since the native language was not a written one, modern spelling is an attempt to create the sound of the Indian term. Given the various interpretations, different spellings for the same sound abound.

Since no native dictionary existed, the meanings of certain words have been deduced from several sources, primarily by Eckstorm. Some are difficult to render accurately in English. Frank Siebert, Jr. devoted much of his life to the understanding of the Maine Indians languages.

When a term has its origins among the Indian population, its meaning is followed by (I).


Attwood, Stanley Bearce. The Length and Breadth of Maine. Orono. University of Maine Press. 1977.

Bond, C. Lawrence. Native Names of New England Towns and Villages.

Eckstorm, Fannie Hardy. Indian Place Names of the Penobscot Valley and the Maine Coast.

McCauley, Brian. The Names of Maine: How Maine Places Got Their Names and What They Mean. Wellesley, MA. Acadia Press. 2004.

Androscoggin. “The place for preparing, curing fish.” (I)

Annabessacook. “Smooth water at outlet.” (I) A lake in Monmouth.

Appalachian. “general appellation of the mountain system in the southeastern part of North America, extending under various names from Maine southwestward to the northern part of Alabama. The name was given by the Spaniards under De Soto, who derived it from the name of a neighboring tribe, the Apalachi. Brinton**** holds its radical to be the muscogee apala, “great sea,” or “great ocean,” and that apalache is a compound of this word with the Muscogee personal participle “chi,” and means.”those by the sea.” 7

Aroostook. river and county in Maine. An Indian word meaning “good river,”
or “clear of obstruction.” 7

Assessors. Local officials charged with assessing property taxes in that local government. In the town meeting form of local government, selectmen also serve as assessors.

Bagaduce. “The big tideway river.” Short for Majabigwaduce. (I) The Bagaduce River at Castine.

Bog. Bogs are characterized by spongy peat deposits, acidic waters, and a floor covered by a thick carpet of sphagnum moss. Bogs receive all or most of their water from precipitation rather than from runoff, groundwater or streams. As a result, bogs are low in the nutrients needed for plant growth, a condition that is enhanced by acid forming peat mosses.3

Brassua. Lake of Moose River, said to be named for an Indian chief. The
word is said to signify “frank.”7

Breastwork. A low, temporary defensive structure, often of earth or stone to conceal troops.*

Brig or Brigantine. A two-masted sailing ship, square rigged on both masts.

Carding Mill. A mill that brushed, or “carded,” wool to untangle its fibers so that it could later be spun into yarn for knitting or weaving cloth. “The first signs of what later became Central Maine’s big textile factories were the carding mills. Carding wool by hand was a tedious, laborious process, and cards operated by water power were welcome.”1

Cask. A large, barrel-like container, made of wood, metal, or plastic.*

Cathance. “The principal branch of a river.” Pronounced “cat-hance,” it refers to a river flowing through Topsham and Bowdoinham to Merrymeeting Bay, and to a stream in Dennysville.

Chewonki. “The big ridge.” (I)

Chesuncook. “At the place of the principal outlet.” (I)

Civil Division. A subdivision of the state created for governing purposes.  Minor civil divisions include cities, towns, plantations and townships.

Clover Mill. Before commercial fertilizers, clover was used in a rotation system to prepare fields for later crops. It was very important to save the seed from each year’s crop. Before mechanization, clover seed was collected by strenuous manual labor. Clover mills were developed to collect and clean the seed more efficiently. The earliest mills used rough cut millstones that crushed the flower heads between them. The seed was expelled out the sides where it was collected. Several Maine town histories report clover mills, including Farmington and Milo. 5

Cobbosseecontee. “The place where sturgeon is found.” (I) Specifically, it was the place on the Kennebec River where the Indians fished for sturgeon. The nearby lake and stream may have been named for this area in the river.

Cook. A suffix meaning a pool or bay, often applied to a lake or pond. (I)

Cooper. One who makes or repairs wooden barrels, casks, tubs, etc.  A cooperage is the place of work for a cooper.*

Cushnoc. “The head of tide.” (I) This is the old name for Augusta.

Deorganize. The process of changing from an incorporated town or city, or an organized plantation, to an unorganized township with no local government.

Downeast. From Boston it meant the Maine coast since sailing vessels travel downwind to go east on the prevailing westerly winds. In Maine, it often means the area east of Penobscot Bay, usually the coastal portions of Hancock and Washington counties.

Eggemoggin. “The fish-weir place.” (I) As in Eggemoggin Reach, the eastern channel of Penobscot Bay.

Elvers. Young, very small, eels.

Esker. A long narrow ridge or mound of sand, gravel, and boulders deposited by a stream flowing on, within, or beneath a stagnant glacier.

Estuary. The area where the tide meets a river current; where the sea meets a river, creating a mixture of fresh and salt water.

Fall. The amount by which a river or stream drops or “falls” from one point to another. (e.g., The Fall on the river is 20 feet in one eighth of a mile.) Often used to describe the water-power potential of a site.

Freshet. A sudden rise in the level of a stream; a flood, caused by heavy rains or the rapid melting of snow and ice.

Fresnel. (prounounced fre-NEL) French Physicist Augustin Fresnel invented a very efficient lens in 1822 that allowed light to be seen for many miles. It looked like a giant glass beehive, with a light at the center, like the one at Pemaquid in Bristol. Because of its efficiency, a fresnel lens could easily throw its light 20 or more miles to the horizon and thus was used in many Maine lighthouses.

Fresnel Lens at Pemaquid Light (2013)

Fresnel Lens at Pemaquid Light (2013)

Cutaway of the Fresnel Lens at Pemaquid Light (2013)

Cutaway of the Fresnel Lens at Pemaquid (2013)

Fulling. The Fulling or Tucking process consists of the closing together of the threads of newly woven woolen fabric with the assistance of soap or acid liquor, with the end purpose of producing a grease free cloth of the correct thickness for future use, including dying. 2

General aviation. Aviation by non-scheduled, civilian aircraft, primarily small, privately owned airplanes,

Gore. An area, triangular or irregular in shape, formed by the diverging or converging survey lines, often as a result of inaccuracies.

Grist mill. A place for grinding grain, such as wheat or corn, into flour or meal. The grinding stones in early mills were turned by water-power.

Helve. A handle, e.g., “axe-helve” = “axe-handle.”*

Intervale. Low lying land near a water course, such as a river. It is often fertile as a result of periodic flooding and likely to be used as farmland.  Other wise know as “bottomland.”

Katahdin. “Great mountain.” (I) Katahdin is Maine’s highest mountain and is in Baxter State Park.

Kenduskeag. “Eel-weir place.” (I)

Kennebago. (I) “Long quiet water” or “long pond.” Name of a lake and mountain north of Rangeley in Franklin County.

Kennebec. “Long, quiet water.” (I)

Kennebunk. “The long cut bank.” (I) Presumably, the long bank behind Kennebunk Beach.

Leather board. An imitation of leather for soles of shoes, made of leather scraps, rags, paper, etc.  From the American Leather Chemists Association: “A type of fiberboard in which the fiber content is at least 75% leather.”

Machias.  Has been interpreted as  “a little run of bad water” or “bad little falls.” At the town of Machias there is a little falls.

Macwahoc. “Bog.” A stream flowing into the Molunkus Stream. (I)

Madawaska. “Where one river runs into another,” is one explanation from the Micmac language.  Others are “having its outlet among the reeds” or “worn out grass.” (I)***

Magdalen herring. Herring caught near the Magdalen islands in the heart of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada.

Malaga. “Cedar.” (I) Two Malaga Islands are associated with Maine: one in Phippsburg, one at the Isles of Shoals.

Manan. “Island.” (I) So, Petit Manan, the name of an island, means “Little Island.” combining the French and Micmac words.

Maple Sugar. Sugar made exclusively by the evaporation of pure maple syrup or pure maple sap.4

Maple Syrup. The liquid food derived by concentration and heat treatment of the sap of the maple trees or by solution in water of maple sugar (maple concentrate) made from such sap. The solids content of the finished maple syrup shall not be less than 66% by weight at 680 Fahrenheit.4

Massabesic. “Big water” or “large pond.” (I)

Mattamiscontis.Alewife stream.” (I)

Mattawamkeag. “At the mouth a gravel bar.” (I) (See Passadumkeag.) This was
the mark by which to recognize the Mattawamkeag River, tributary to the

Minor Civil Division. The designation of civil divisions of the state below the county level. Often abbreviated MCD, it includes townships which have no organized local governments, and organized local governments which are plantations, towns, and cities. Most MCD’s are six mile squares, especially those in the later-settled northern two-thirds of the state.

Molunkus. “Deep-valley stream” or “ravine stream.” (I) A stream tributary to the Mattawamkeag River.

Monhegan. The “out-to-sea island.” (I)

Mooslookmeguntic. Bond suspects the name means “smooth when choppy seas,” for an area of the lake by the same name which is smooth during windy conditions.

Naskeag. “The end, the extremity.” (I) As in Naskeag Point in Brooklin marking the eastern boundary of Penobscot Bay.

Nicatou. “The forks.” (I) Especially a fork in the river. Nicatowis or Nicatous means “the little forks.” Also one of the largest lakes in Hancock County. Eckstorm, p. 49.

Norumbega. An early name for the area now called Maine.  Early explorers believed it was a land of gold and jewels discovered by the Spanish. The name appeared on maps and may have had a Norse origin.

Oquossoc. (I) “Place at other side of little stream.” Name for a village in the town of Rangeley and of a stream connecting Mooselookmeguntic and Rangeley Lakes.

Orono. The town named for Chief Joseph Orono, who died in 1801.(I) “He was a
beloved and highly respected man, said by the Indians to be the son of a French father and a mother half French and half Indian. He was blue-eyed and so light of skin that in his own lifetime he was often thought to have been a captive white boy adopted by the Indians.” Eckstorm, p. 26.

Passadumkeag. “Above the gravel bar.” (I) A small river entering the Penobscot from the east in the town of the same name.

Passamaquoddy. “Pollock-plentiful place” and name of an Indian tribe in eastern Maine.(I)

Patent. The right to possess and use an object or land. The early proprietors were given “patents,” on large tracts of land in Maine, such as the Waldo Patent held by Samuel Waldo.

Pattagumpus. “Back turn-gravel-place” or “the gravelly bend.” (I) Generally, “a sharp turn in the river where the bottom is gravelly.” Eckstorm, p. 63.

Pejepscot. “The long rocky rapids part,” of the Androscoggin River. (I)

Pemaquid. “Long Point” or “a point of land running into the sea.” (I)

Pemetic. “A range of mountains.”

Penobscot. “The rocky part” or “at the descending rock.” (I) Originally the
name of about ten mile of the river between Bangor and Old Town.

Pentagoet. “Falls of the river.” or “at the falls.” This refers to tidal falls.

Plantation. A form of local government, inherited from Massachusetts, unique to Maine. They have annual town meetings and are governed by a Board of Assessors, rather than selectmen.  Plantations are created by county commissioners, rather than by the Maine Legislature (as are towns), and have fewer powers than towns.  They usually have small populations located in rural areas. See also Plantations.

Portage. From the French “carry,” usually referring to the carrying of a canoe from one water body to another.

Proprietor. A person granted ownership of, and governmental powers over, a tract of land, usually by a colonial power, such as England.

Public Lots. Land owned by the State of Maine to be managed “for recreation, wildlife management, and the like as well as for the production of wood products.” Many of the “original public lots,” inherited from Massachusetts for support of religious and educational expenses expected when town were formed, were sold, leased or lost after Maine statehood. In 1973 the State asserted its rights over these lots.  Through a long process of purchases, legal proceedings and land swaps, public lots were recovered or reformed for the benefit of the people of the state.6

Public Reserved Lands. The collection of all Public Lots, reserved for public benefit. Also, the name of the state program for the management of these lots. Some of Maine’s most outstanding natural features and secluded locations are found on Maine’s Public Lands. The more than half million acres are managed by the Bureau of Parks and Lands for a variety of resource values including recreation, wildlife, and timber.

Quintal. A “hundred weight”; a unit of weight equal to 100 kilograms (about 220 pounds).

Red Paint People. Early inhabitants of Maine, the Red Paint People were so named because of their tendency to be buried with red ocher. This custom was not unique to Maine nor even North America, having been noticed in Wales in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Robinhood. (I) A sachem who greeted Europeans and signed many deeds in the Georgetown region. Thus the names for Robinhood Bay and the Robinhood village in Georgetown.

Sachem. A chief of a Native American tribe or confederation, especially an Algonquian chief. (I)

Saco. “An outlet” of a river. (I)

Sagadahoc. “The mouth of a river.” (I)

Sagamore. A leader or chief of a band of related Indian families who often camped together; a subordinate chief from the tribal perspective. (I)

Sasanoa. A river northeast of Georgetown named for the Indian leader Sasinow, apparently by Champlain.

Sebago, Sebec. “Great lake.” (I) Both terms come from the same term, variously spelled Sebecco, Sebagok, Sebagook.

Sebascodegan. “”Almost through” or “rocky passage, almost through.” (I) This island in Harpswell has several deep cuts “almost through” it, possibly used for canoe carrying places.

Sebasticook. “The passage river,” “the almost-through river,” “the short route.” (I) This is the name of the tributary of the Kennebec River in Winslow, a heavily used route from the Penobscot River to Quebec, that rises in the Garland, Sangerville, Dexter area and flows southward to Sebasticook Lake in Newport, then to Winslow.

Sededunkehunk. “Rapids at the mouth.” Incorrectly spelled and pronounced Segeunkedunk. (I) A stream in Brewer.

Selectmen. In the town meeting form of government, the board that is responsible for administrative and limited policy matters, including managing town staff.  It is know as the Board of Selectmen or the Select Board.

Shire town. “County seat” or seat of government including the county offices of its Superior Court, sheriff, Registry of Deeds, Probate Court, and Register of Probate.

Shooks. Sets of staves and headings for a cask, ready for fitting together.*

Skowhegan. “A place to watch for fish.”

Spindle. A component of home-based spinning wheels and in machines used in textile (cloth producing) mills. Spindles guide and twist threads in the process of making cloth.

Spool-block. A block of birch wood from which spools were made to hold thread for use in textile factories.  The block of wood was rounded using a lathe, then a hole was bored through it and cut to the proper length.  Precision was important to make them interchangeable with others.**

Spuds.  The slang term for potatoes – but why?  A spud is “a small narrow spade for cutting the roots of weeds,” and “spudding” is “to make the initial drilling hole.”*  The term “spudding potatoes” apparently refers to making a hole for seeding potatoes.

Square-rigged. When the principal sails of a vessel are at right angles to its length.

Staves. Curved pieces of  wood forming the sides of a cask, pail, barrel, etc.*

Sugarhouse. Building where maple sap is boiled and maple syrup and maple sugar are made.

Sugarbush. A group of Sugar Maple trees growing in the same area and used to produce maple syrup or maple sugar.

Sunkhaze. “Concealing outlet.” (I) A stream outlet that is so well concealed that a canoe emerging from it may startle the observer. Such was the stream by that name in Milford.

Township. An unorganized (not cities, towns, or plantations) civil division taxed and governed directly by the state.

Village corporation. A form of local government creating a virtual “town within a town.” They were especially popular in areas where “summer colonies” of non-residents preferred to operate their own administrative affairs separate from the parent town, often taxing themselves for fire, police and other services beyond what the town would have provided. Most have been absorbed by the parent towns or have been incorporated as separate towns, such as Frye Island. Lucerne-in-Maine, withing the town of Dedham, remains a village corporation.

Weir. An enclosure of stakes, nets, or similar devices placed in a stream, river, or channel, to catch fish.

Weskeag. (I) Originally Wessaweskeag, means “tidal creek” or “salt creek.” It refers to the Weskeag River in South Thomaston.

Wiscasset. “The outlet.” (I)

*** Wytopitlock. “Alder tree place.” (I)

*Oxford English Reference Dictionary. Revised Second Edition. Oxford University Press. 1996.

**The Wood-worker, Volume 17,   S.H. Smith Co., 1898. p. 41. (from Google books, accessed January 23, 2012)

***McCauley, Brian. The Names of Maine. Wesley, MA. Acadia Press. 2004. and/or Bond, C. Lawrence. Native Names of New England Town and Villages. Topsfield, MA. 1993.

**** Apparently, Daniel Garrison Brinton (1837-1899)

1“Little Talks #665, May 30, 1965.” Colby College Special Collections. (accessed January 26, 2012); and “Carding Mill.” Old Sturbridge Village. (accessed January 26, 2012)

2 Withridge Historical Archives. “Fulling.” (accessed May 8, 2012)

3 “Wetlands: What they are.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (accessed February 15, 2014)

4 Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Division of Grading Services. Chapter 117: “Official Standard for Maple Syrup Grades.” (accessed March 20, 2014)

5 Galonska, Ann. “Mansfield’s Clover Mill .” Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter. Storrs, CT. April, 2003.

6 Schepps, Lee M. “Maine’s Public Lots: The Emergence of a Public Trust. Maine Law Review. Vol. 26. 1974. pp. 217-274. (accessed April 9, 2014)

7 Gannett, Henry. The Origin of Certain Place Names in the United States. Washington, DC. United States. Department of the Interior. United States Geographic Survey. 1905.

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