A lake is a considerable body of water surrounded by land; or, sometimes, an expanded part of a river (as Lake Pepin, the massive widening of the upper Mississippi River between Red Wing and Wabasha, Minnesota). Lake has traditionally denoted a body of water large enough to present itself as a geographic feature, perhaps opening to rivulets and streams, thus potentially part of a larger, interrelated water system. But lake has proved to be a wonderfully, or perhaps perversely, flexible term and is applied to freshwater forms as diverse as the Great Lakes, which constitute vast inland seas, and small constructed ornamental lakes in parks or even private properties. Lake is also a red pigment composed of a coloring agent combined, usually by precipitation, with metallic oxide or earth to create striking hues such as madder lake (a fierce yellow). The etymology of lake has been traced to early forms meaning play, fun, sport, glee, games, and tricks, and sometimes “to fight” and occasionally “to please.” In early Middle English, “to lake” indicated an offering, a sacrifice, finally a gift. These verb forms are very old, almost forgotten except in lexicons, but they provide testimony that argues persuasively that lake’s etymology is best found in the earliest traces of English out of its Teutonic roots, not, as might logically be assumed, from the Latin lacus. Lake is unobtrusively onomatopoetic, the l and a together forming a plangent, serene sound, combined with the kick of the k, like the soft lapping of a wave. Lake often serves as a descriptive or evocative adjective, as in lake poets, lake country. Two particularly voracious fish, the bow-fin and the burbot, are sometimes called, in jest, lake lawyers. In Minnesota, a regional usage—“We’re going up to the lake this weekend”—often confuses visitors who assume there is a single lake to which the speaker is referring, when in fact “the lake” pertains to any lake in the state but also, in the spirit of affectionate possessiveness, to a specific lake that is the speaker’s destination. Used in this way, lake is both a place and a condition, rather in the spirit of its earliest root in play and fun.

Patricia Hampl