What Does Ski U Mah Mean?

by Frank V. Persall

Ski-U-Mah is a University of Minnesota slogan that has been around since the 1880s. The slogan has a long history and it has been used by the Minnesota team ever since its initial conception by the rugby coaches in 1884. The Minnesota football team has the slogan on their uniforms in addition to the symbols of an oar and compass on the helmet. This represents the “Row the Boat” culture that means to keep going no matter what. 

What Does Ski U Mah Mean
What Does Ski U Mah Mean

The Origins Of Ski-U-Mah

Ski-U-Mah is a catchy slogan that the Minnesota coaches came up within 1884 to rhyme with “rah rah rah” and Minn-so-ta. It originally comes from the phrase/sound “ski Yoo” that Captain John Adams heard cried out by the native boys at Lake Dakota during rowing and other sporting competitions.

He interpreted this phrase (incorrectly) as what he thought was a native Dakota word for winning. When he was brainstorming a slogan for the sports team, he decided to use this sound. He added “mah” at the end in order for it to rhyme with the other three-syllable phrases as part of their team chant. 

Ever since then, this slogan has been used to cheer on all Minnesota sports teams and it has become a signature part of the university’s sports history and culture. While the school’s signature cheer has changed over the years, they have always kept “ski u mah” as a part of their tradition. John Adams can be accredited with the creation of this tradition as it was his experience with native life and how he remembered the native children and youths using “Ski Yoo” as an exclamation of joy or victory during sporting events that led him to add it to the cheer.

It Started With a Canoe Race

The traditional chant all started with a canoe and the Dakota tribe. The coaches at the time wanted to give their chant a particular Minnesota flair and did so by incorporating the phrase “Ski Yoo” which they heard shouted by natives whenever a canoe crossed the finish line at the Minnesota lake races. This also ties into one of the current University of Minnesota slogans, “Row the Boat”. A coach came up with the slogan after his son passed away. It means to keep rowing on despite the challenges that you may face.

Interesting Facts

In addition to being a chant used during sporting events, there are also other uses of the phrase historically known around the University of Minnesota campus. In one example, “Ski U Mah” was the name of a speakeasy near the campus of the University of Minnesota during prohibition times where students would go to drink alcohol illegally after sporting events. There was a funny university magazine with “Ski-U-Mah” as the title. There was also a yearbook published with the same title. 

  • Used as a name for the speakeasy near campus during the prohibition.  
  • Several university publications are named after the phrase.
  • There is a parking lot named after it. 
  • There is a meeting room at the alumni center named after it.

Because the sports team had a great deal of success and recognition during the time of prohibition and the phrase was used for the name of the speakeasy where the locals would meet after the games, this could be one reason why the name has historically held onto its significance and never fallen off in terms of use. It speaks to a time when the university’s sports teams were the most successful in history. 

Modern Day Usage

To this day, “Ski-U-Mah” is a chant used by students and fans of the University of Minnesota to cheer on their sports teams. On the football team’s uniforms, the phrase is printed alongside the player's numbers. Many people use this phrase without knowing the origins of it even though the university does try to educate students on the phrase’s history. It nonetheless remains prevalent in the athletic culture and team spirit building at the school.

The Definition Of Ski-U-Mah

Captain John Adams in 1884 interpreted “ski-oo” as meaning ‘victory’. This s because he heard natives shouting the phrase whenever a canoe went over the finish line in rowing competitions. Although this is how the captain interpreted what he heard, “ski-oo” is, according to experts in the Dakota native tribes, not a word used by the native Dakota’s to mean victory. It is most likely just a sound made in excitement such as “woo-hoo” and does not have a true definition beyond that. 

The “mah” at the end of “ski-oo” is only there so then it rhymes with the third syllable of the other third syllables in the cheer, namely “rah” and “ta.” Even after multiple revisions of the cheer, “Ski-U-Mah” has always stayed the same. They did, however, change “ski-oo” to “ski-u” when it was printed for the first time in 1885.

How To Pronounce Ski-U-Mah

The correct way to pronounce “Ski-U-Mah” is sky-yoo-mah with emphasis put on the second syllable “yoo.” “Ski” is spelt the same way as the winter sports skiing, which may lead to those reading the phrase without hearing it to mispronounce it in this way. The correct pronunciation of the first syllable is “sky” as in the sky above.

In order to pronounce the chant correctly, there must also be an emphasis put on the second syllable. The original chant went as follows:

Rah RAH rah

Ski OO mah 

Minn SO ta

It has been through multiple rounds of revisions over the years after the initial chant was made up. They added different syllables and phrases to produce the best noise. The “oo” was shortened to “u” when printed and it is correctly pronounced “yoo” with a slight inflection of speech at the beginning.  

Conclusion

While many chant the phrase during sporting events, a lot of people do not know the origin story behind it. It can be traced back to an incorrect translation of a sound made by local natives when a canoe won a race in Lake City, Minnesota. It was thought to mean “victory.”

The phrase “ski-oo”, which is basically another version of the phrase “woo-hoo”, doesn’t have a true definition beyond being an exclamation of excitement. Regardless, it worked perfectly as it rhymes with “rah rah rah” and “minn so ta” as a third line in the chant. The victory chant has an interesting origin story that incorporates local native culture with the university teams’ desire to win in competitions.

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About Frank V. Persall

Originally from the UK, Frank has a passion for skiing and anything snow related. He is currently on a never ending mission to visit the best ski resorts across the USA and the the World. Frank is happiest when he is on ski slopes with his wife and three children.

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