Big Ole debuted at the Minnesota pavilion of the 1965 World’s Fair in New York. He stands in Alexandria as a tribute to the state's Norwegian settlers. Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

Where does 'uff da' come from, and why do Minnesotans say it?

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Ever get back home from a long day of work, kick off your shoes and sigh “uff da” as your body hits the couch? Of course you do — you’re a Minnesotan.

We have a lot of peculiar quips, from “ope” to Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, but Rebekah Schumacher said she receives the most confused looks from non-Minnesotans when she says “uff da.”

Schumacher, 27, who grew up in Savage, said she often utters the phrase whenever she encounters an extreme, like freezing temps or lifting something heavy. Although she’s been saying “uff da” for as long as she can remember, she isn’t quite sure what it means.

She turned to Curious Minnesota, our community-driven reporting project powered by questions from readers, to ask “Why do Minnesotans say ‘uff da?’ ”

In Norwegian, “uff” is an exclamation similar to “ah” or “oh” in English. “Da” in Norwegian means “there.” According to the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), “Oh, for gosh sakes” is uff da’s closest English translation.

The phrase is Norwegian, but it is not common and you would have to search for quite a while to find a native-Norwegian who uses it in everyday language, said Anatoly Liberman, an etymologist at the University of Minnesota.

“The problem with this ‘uff da’ is that though it is Norwegian, you cannot find it in any Norwegian dictionary,” Liberman said. “ ‘Uff da’ is lost ... it’s typically Minnesotan, which is already very strange. Who brought it and when [did it] originate? No one knows, so that’s really the whole very sad story.”

Many communities have their own words and expressions that are hard to trace, Liberman said, and “uff da” is one of these expressions.

The DARE, which Curious Minnesota consulted per Liberman’s recommendation, states that the phrase was first printed in the 1941 novel, “The Tall Brothers,” and attributes the phrase’s origin to Norwegian settlement areas in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

In the 1850s, Norwegians immigrated to Minnesota in waves, as families were attracted to the state’s fertile farming land. Much of the Norwegian immigration clustered in southeast Minnesota but eventually spread to cities such as Fergus Falls and Alexandria, and later the whole state, according to MNopedia, an online encyclopedia developed by the Minnesota Historical Society. In 2018, more than 810,000 Minnesotans still identified as being of Norwegian ancestry.

Schumacher now lives in Utah, and gets a kick out of seeing how her home state’s unique expression can turn heads.

“Explaining ‘uff da’ has just been fun for me,” Schumacher said.

Michelle Griffith (michelle.griffith@startribune.com) is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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