Issue 188, page 1

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California, USA

We (Melanie and Mike) are both transplants in California.  Melanie is a Texan (shh!) and Mike is from Wales.  We find ourselves intrigued and amused by some of the placenames we encounter in this huge state.  We enjoy driving to remote locations and camping/hiking, and we also like to visit historic towns and sites, so we see our share of California.  Here are some of our favorite placenames and their derivations:

Calistoga: This lovely town in Napa County is said by several sources, including sources in the town itself, to have received its name as the result of a Spoonerism uttered by a prominent citizen and developer of the area in 1859.  Some claim he was drunk, others seem to think it was an innocent bit of tangue tongling.  Whatever the reason, the developer, Sam Brannan, was trying to say that he was going to make the area the "Saratoga of California", referring to the then-popular resort of Saratoga in New York State.  It came out as "the Calistoga of Sarafornia"!  There is even a restaurant in Calistoga named Sarafornia in honor of the derivation of the town's name.

Click to visit the Ansel Adams site.Yosemite: It is a beautiful word that evokes grand images, whether seen in person or through the lens of photographers like Ansel Adams, but its etymological meaning is a bit more fearsome.  It apparently comes from a Southern Sierra Miwok word, yohhe'meti or yosse'meti, meaning "they are killers", and was apparently how the Indians who lived outside the valley referred to those who lived inside it.  Some have derived it from a word meaning "grizzly bear", but that is apparently incorrect.  

Eureka: This city is situated on the northern coast of California and was an important port city in the 19th century.  The word eureka, supposedly uttered by Archimedes when he discovered the principle of buoyancy, is Greek for "I have found it".  It became California's motto in 1849 (and what they "found" was, of course, gold) and the city was so named in 1850.

Sonoma: The city, county and valley all owe their names to a Patwin word meaning "nose".  The Spanish referred to Indians in the area as Sonomas; they were probably given that name by the Patwin because of some nasal characteristic of one or several members of the tribe.  It seems somehow appropriate today as Sonoma Valley is known for its outstanding wines and a wine's "nose" or "bouquet" is one of its important features. Also note that Indo-European words for "nose" and related things often start with sn-, superficially similar, at least, to the son- of sonoma.

Malibu: There was a Chumash village near present-day Malibu, and the SpanishMalibu.  Click to follow the link. spelled it Umalibu, their best approximation of the Chumash words thought to mean "it makes a loud noise all the time over there".  What were the Chumash referring to?  The surf hitting the beach, apparently.

Mad River: One might think that this river in northern California was so named because it was an unpredictable torrent or twisted crazily on its course to the sea, but no.  It was so named because Dr. Josiah Gregg's surveying party wouldn't wait for him while he tried to determine the latitude of the river's mouth, and he got "mad" at them.  That was in 1849.

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Last Updated 01/08/06 01:56 PM