What Are The Origins And Meaning Of Ski U Mah?

Ski-U-Mah has been the University of Minnesota’s slogan since the 1880s and has a long and rich history with the Minnesota sports teams since the rugby coaches came up with it in 1884. The football team has the slogan sewn onto their kits as well as the symbols of a compass and oar on their helmets.

These emblems symbolize the University’s “Row the Boat” culture which runs through their playing and means that they need to keep going regardless of the situation. In this guide, we’ll be taking you through everything you need to know about the Ski-U-Mah phrase as we will be delving into its origins, history and how it has still remained relevant to the University of Minnesota today. 

Definition

Before we delve into the specific origins, it’s important to understand what Ski-U-Mah actually means. Upon hearing the phrase during a lake race in 1884, Captain John Adams interpreted “ski-oo” to mean victory as it was shouted when the winning native team went over the finish line during competitions.

However, according to experts, “ski-oo” is not a word that native Dakota tribes would have used and the words for victory or winning sound nothing like it. Therefore, it is most likely that Adams misheard and it could have been a simple “woo-hoo” and nothing more. When it comes to the “mah” part, this was added at the end to ensure that the phrase was three syllables which therefore sounds better during chants.

It also rhymes with “rah rah rah” and “Minn-so-ta” which meant that it could work within the chants and cheers. When the phrase was printed in 1885, “ski-oo” was changed to “Ski-U” and it has remained unchanged ever since. 

Pronunciation

There is much confusion when it comes to the pronunciation of the phrase. This is mainly because of the first syllable “ski” which is the subject of much confusion for those who read the phrase before hearing it.

Despite being spelt like the winter sport skiing, in Ski-U-Mah, the “ski” part is actually pronounced as sky as in the sky above. Following this, the “U” is pronounced as “yoo” and the “Mah” is pronounced as “Ma”. 

Overall, the phonetic pronunciation is as follows: “sky yoo ma” with an extra emphasis on the second syllable.

The original “Ski-U-Mah” chant was as follows:

  • Rah rah rah
  • Ski-U-Mah
  • Minn-so-ta

Although the chants and cheers have been altered over the years, this basic chant has been the blueprint for much inspiration and is important to the University of Minnesota’s culture. 

Origins

As mentioned earlier, Ski-U-Mah is a phrase that was conceptualized in 1884 by Minnesota rugby coaches and was designed to rhyme with “rah rah rah” and Minn-so-ta. So where do the words “Ski-U-Mah” come from? It is said that Captain John Adams overhead native boys shouting “ski U” at Lake Dakota taking part in sporting competitions such as rowing.

He incorrectly thought that this translated as a native Dakota word for winning and when deciding what slogan would best sum up the teams, he thought that “Ski-U” was the perfect sound. He then added the “Mah” on the end so it rhymed with the aforementioned phrases as well as becoming a three syllable phrase which sounds better when chanted.

Ever since its inception, this phrase has been used for all the Minnesota sports teams and has become integrated within the University’s culture and sports history.

Despite the cheers changing over the years, “Ski-U-Mah” has remained firmly in place in all cheers and chants. What makes this phrase so significant is how it was inspired by Captain John Adams’ experience with the native Dakota residents and how they celebrated their wins. 

The Canoe Race That Started It All

One sport that has been hugely popular in Minnesota and specifically the Dakota tribe is rowing and this has continued on to this day. When John Adams heard the “Ski-U” cry, it was at a rowing competition when the winner would cross the finish line at the Minnesota lake races.

This is also the reason why there is a modern slogan “Row the Boat” at University of Minnesota as well as including an oar onto the emblems. As mentioned earlier, this phrase means that the participants need to carry on no matter what.

Ski-U-Mah Outside of Sports

Although Ski-U-Mah has its origins in sports and remains a key part of the cheers and chants for all Minnesota sports, there are many uses of the phrase outside of sports that can be found around the University of Minnesota campus.

From social life to the arts, Ski-U-Mah has found its way into other aspects of Minnesota life and become synonymous with the University of Minnesota lifestyle. Here are just a few of the examples where Ski-U-Mah has been applied: 

  • Speakeasy

One of the most iconic examples is that Ski-U-Mah was the name of a speakeasy located near the campus of the University of Minnesota. The sports team had its most successful run in history during the Prohibition era and the speakeasy named Ski-U-Mah was the place where the students and locals would go to celebrate.

Because it has been associated with celebrating the most significant point in the University of Minnesota’s sporting history, this has helped to maintain the relevance and importance of the phrase as it has become synonymous with success. 

  • Publications

Ski-U-Mah has found its way into the more creative side of the University’s culture as the phrase has been incorporated into many publications over the years.

There have been many publications named after Ski-U-Mah with the most well known examples being a comical magazine that had Ski-U-Mah as its title as well as a yearbook using it as the title. 

  • Various locations

Lastly, Ski-U-Mah has become a popular choice when naming new developments and locations around the campus. Some examples include a parking lot that has been named after and more recently, a meeting room at the Alumni Center has also taken inspiration from the iconic phrase. 

Modern Day

Unsurprisingly, Ski-U-Mah is still incorporated into the students’ lifestyle today. It is mainly used during sporting events in the chants and has even been included on the football team’s uniforms and is printed beside their numbers.

Although the phrase is well known and applied throughout the cheers and chants, there are a lot of people who don’t know the history behind it and where it comes from. The University of Minnesota does as much as it can to ensure that their students are well informed about Ski-U-Mah as it has an important role in the University’s culture. 

Conclusion

Learning about this phrase not only means that you understand what the chant means and where it comes from, but it also helps you to integrate yourself even further into the University of Minnesota’s history.

Even though it was wrongly thought to mean winning or victory, the phrase has become so widely used that it has become synonymous with success for over 130 years. Having originally started out as a cry for victory during a lake race, Ski-U-Mah has spread its wings over every aspect of University life and inspired its students for many years. 

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