Tuesday, November 10, 2020

California Etymology

I researched the word 'California' and found that it is a Spanish name meaning roughly 'the land of cinnamon'. The English language used to take its words from Latin more often, but later shifted toward Greek. Cinnamon also got taken on by English as did eucalyptus, which you might know from the Camphor Laurel type of tree here in America.

Intriguingly, the English word for cinnamon is not derived from its Latin name (which is 'cinnamum') but rather from a Sanskrit word ('"kurundam') meaning tree that smells like bark. How interesting.

The word 'California' is also the name of a country in South America. The Spanish had initially named it California as well, in the mistaken belief that they were on an island near Japan.

My research has revealed that the etymology of California is in fact a complicated one. I include my findings below:

The origin of the word 'California' is from an old Basque name for a type of whale found in the Pacific ocean, meaning roughly 'whale tail'. The French subsequently named their land after this whale, eventually leading to what we know today as 'California'.

Shortly after, the Spanish encountered this land. They originally named it California because of its trees with sweet-smelling bark that they likened to cinnamon. The word 'cinnamon' is derived from a Sanskrit word ('"kurundam') meaning tree that smells like bark.

The word California seems to be of Spanish origin, from the historical name given by Spanish explorers to a mythical island in the Pacific Ocean. There are several theories about the etymology of this name but they all seem rather speculative and have little factual evidence behind them.

It seems to me that the name California originally stems from a misunderstanding of an indigenous dialect. I would like to stress that there is no direct evidence for this, it is only my personal speculation.

One theory is that California comes from the Basque word kaliforni, meaning 'very cold.' There are several problems with this explanation. Firstly, it implies that the Spanish explorers misunderstood a native language which they did not speak and could barely hear.

Secondly, there is no evidence of the existence of a Basque speaker in California at that time. Thirdly, it would be hard to explain why the Spanish explorers decided to keep this mistake and name their new discovery after a mythical island instead.

Another theory is that the name California comes from a mutation of an indigenous word cali-forne, meaning 'island of beautiful waters.' This explanation has some problems as well. Firstly, it would mean that there was either a native speaker with knowledge about this unknown island who happened to live on the coast of the Baja Peninsula or at least someone able to interpret ancient manuscripts.

Secondly, it would mean that the Spanish explorers got this translation for a Baja native word wrong, as they named their discovery after an island and not a place.

The word 'California' is derived from the Spanish word calif, which means 'leader of an Islamic polity'. In turn, it comes from the Arabic khalīfah. The name refers to some specific historical leaders in the Muslim world that existed long ago. California was named after those people and not directly after a place or geographical feature.

I think the word 'California' could also be used to describe a political leader in some kind of system which is not exactly democratic, but has an elected figurehead. Such a person could be called "the California".

Some people call the current US president 'the California' because he is a politician and not an elected monarch. I don't think that's quite right though.

I don't think 'the California' is a good nickname for the current governor of that state.

The word California could also be used to describe a female dog. That being said, I don't think the word is common in that sense.

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