Today's blog is abnormal, so I warn you to read no further if you're expecting my typical plant pratter. Let's do geography instead. I know, at least half of the readership has already heeded my warning and will not continue. You remaining all know what geography means – the study of places (including space) and the relationships between people and their environments – from the Greek geo for "earth" and graphia "to write." The word photography, for example, means "to write with light."
When about 7-10 years old I developed a fascination with the world's places, probably because my father worked two jobs and my mother didn't drive, so consequently we never went anywhere. Back then there was no internet and TV was in its infancy, so I wasn't exposed to nature or travel programs. But our family did receive the monthly National Geographic magazine and I devoured most of those articles. An added bonus was that I could ogle bare-breasted African women. Via the magazine I accompanied expeditions to the Andes and the Himalaya, to China and India, to London and New York City etc., and then in adulthood I eventually visited all of those places.
I wasn't the sharpest kid in school but I aced geography well above the other students. For example I could locate on a globe – I guess nobody has those balls anymore – every African country and its capital. The same with most of the world's countries. Later I lost track of a lot of it since the USSR split into a bunch of stans (meaning "land") and some of the African countries renamed themselves etc. Long ago I was in the international section of the Bangkok airport and I was puzzled by the readerboard which listed a flight to Mumbai. When I got home I investigated where the hell was Mumbai and discovered that Bombay had changed its name.
The first recorded use of the word geography was by the Greek scholar Eratosthenes (276-194 BC) and he is credited with the discipline. His map of the known world is fascinating, and actually kind of interesting that so much was both known and unknown. Era was a brilliant polymath: besides geography he was an astronomer, music theorist, poet and mathematician, and for the latter he developed a simple algorithm for finding prime numbers, now known as the "Sieve of Eratosthenes." Era was born in Cyrene, an important Greek, then later Roman city near present-day Shahhat, Libya. It was also headquarters of the Cyrenaics, a school of philosophy founded by Aristippus, a 4th century BC disciple of Socrates. Cyrene's important export during its early history was the medicinal herb silphium, and it was in such demand that it was harvested to extinction. The "giant fennel" was used as a seasoning, as perfume and, oh boy, as an aphrodisiac, so who wouldn't want some of that? To help keep ardor in check it was also used as a contraceptive.
In ancient Greece Libya could mean all of Africa,* or at least the Afro-lands west of the Nile. The modern nation acquired the name in 1934 when Italy held it as a colony, and it became formally independent in 1951. Libya was first mentioned in the Egyptian 12th dynasty (1991-1786 BC), in the historical story Prophecy of Neferti.
*The Greek Herodotus (484-425 BC) wrote: "As for Libya, – [Africa] – we know it to be washed on all sides by the sea, except where it is attached to Asia.
The name Asia is also attributed to Herodotus, from the Phoenician word asa which means "east" and the Akkadian word asuwhich for "to rise." So Asia means "the land of the sunrise," but first it only referred to the east bank of the Aegean Sea. In Latin an inhabitant of Asia Minor was an Asianus, but these days that could refer to the people of China, or at least to their Communist dictatorship. Romans used the term oriens for the east because they had a Eurocentric view of geography, as if they were placed in The Middle, and indeed the Mediterranean Sea means "middle earth," or "the body of water in the middle of the earth." Another meaning of orient is "a pearl of great luster" which would apply to my Japanese wife, and sometimes I tease her by calling her my "Little Ornamental." If she is slow to awaken in the morning I remind her that the day is almost finished in the Orient. She groans, and wonders why she married this old American who pops with jokes that only he thinks to be so funny.
Ok, back to China – how did that name originate? As is typical, nothing is certain. The name might come from Sanskrit literature where Cina could refer to the inhabitants around the origins of the Indus River, but I guess that would be an Indocentric concept. Later the Latin word Sina would become the origin of Sino or Sinae, which too has its origins in Sanskrit. In its official language China is known as Zhongguo for "central state," a horrible concept when in the wrong hands. More pleasantly it could be Zhonghua for "central beauty" or Huaxia for "beautiful grandness" or Shenzhou for "divine state." More realistically, today, Han and Tang are common names for Chinese ethnicity, and now the People' Republic of China is Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo...but I promise that you won't be tested on any of this. The Japanese use the term Chuka Jinmin kyowakoku, but I was afraid to ask my wife the literal meaning of that, for one must be careful to not push the wrong buttons. Anyway, I've been to China only once, I guess it was about 1987 – if you exclude Hong Kong a decade earlier – and in those pre-Tiananmen days I was impressed with that country's energy, its potential, but the world has definitely soured about its existence since then. The Chinese have long considered themselves to be at the middle of the earth, and in fact China's classroom maps present their country in the center, and the kids are taught that all lands surrounding China are fit for only barbarians.
Pakistanis would disagree, as their country's name means "land of the pure" in Urdu and Persian. Once home to the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization, it was conquered by Aryans in about 1500 BC. Eventually the British ruled it as part of India, then it became a separate Muslim state in 1947, where it has been largely dysfunctional ever since. Today's Pakistan used to be called West Pakistan to distinguish it from East Pakistan, with the latter now existing as Bangladesh ("Land of the Bengals"). The Bengal name is for its people, said to be from Banga, the name of a founding chief, and Marco Polo mentioned Bangala in 1298. Some speculate that it came from the word Bonga meaning "Sun god." I've been at the borders of both Pakistan and Bangladesh but I never officially set foot in either country, and I'm sure that I never will. Way too hot!
Closer to home, I find it amazing that no one knows for certain the name origin of my home state of Oregon. I have dozens of word-origin and place-origin books in my basement library – pre-internet you see – and the only ones I trust are the books that state the uncertainty. Some authors stridently declare their theory about the name, but another book can provide a completely different theory. We know that in 1500 Spanish sailors returning to Mexico from the Philippines were the first white people to see the Oregon coast, and in 1578 Sir Francis Drake maybe touched shore, looking for a passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. In 1792 Robert Gray sailed up the Big River which he named the Columbia after his ship's name. The Columbia River at one time was called the Ouragan which means "hurricane" in French, so perhaps during a winter's bluster the great river was called "the river of storms," hence Oregon. Another theory posits the Spanish origin of Orejon from the chronicle Relacion de la Alta y Baja California by Rodrigo Montezuma. In 1598 he made reference to the River. Another suggested that a plant in the oregano family which is found in Oregon led to the name. On and on...
|Las Sergas de Espladian|
Our neighboring state of California has more certainty about its name and it's a fantastic story, but I suspect that most of that state's denizens have no clue about it. When the Spanish invaded the New World they were aroused by a mythical island named Califa which was inhabited by a black race of warrior women. The gals even had their left breast removed so they could better draw their bows. This fantasy was described in Las Sergas de Esplandian by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo, written about 1510. When Spanish conquistadors first discovered the Baja California peninsula they believed it to be a large island, east of the Indies, ruled by a Queen Calipha. The author conjured the name from Arabic Khalifa (leader), or else he was influenced by the term Califerne in an 11th century French epic The Song of Roland.
|Map of California (1666)|
I'll quote an excerpt from Montalvo's novel:
"Know, then, that, on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise, and it was peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they lived in the fashion of the Amazons. They were of strong and hardy bodies, of ardent courage and great force. Their island was the strongest in all the world, with its steep cliffs and rocky shores. Their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode. For, in the whole island, there was no metal but gold.
|Diego Gutierrez, the Americas, published in 1562|
In 1562 Diego Gutierrez published the first map using the name California. Of course gold was eventually discovered in Coloma, California at Sutters Mill which led to the Gold Rush (1848-1855) which immediately brought 300,000 people to California. The state's logo name is The Golden State, but that has nothing to do with gold or the Rush, rather it originated when the Spanish explorers noticed from their ships gold-cladded hills which turned out to be the flowers of the native poppy, Eschscholzia californica.
To Oregon's north is Washington state and that was named after America's first president, George Washington, but that may change by those wishing to cancel culture, and who are toppling his statues because he kept slaves. I won't weigh in on any of that because I don't want to anger stupid people. But I will report that there is a dinky town named George, as in George, Washington, and I had breakfast at its one cafe which also doubled as a tourist shop where you could buy cups, plates and t-shirts. My omelette and hash-browns were pretty good too. I didn't stick around for the annual July 4th celebration where the world's largest pie is baked every year, weighing 1,000 pounds.
|Hyndman Peak, Idaho|
The last place name that I'll discuss is the state of Idaho, most notable for its potatoes and as the birth-place of me. It is a beautiful land of forests, rivers and mountains such as the Twelvers where a number of peaks exceed 12,000' in altitude. What does the word Idaho mean? Unfortunately it was an invented name that mining lobbyist George M. Willing proposed to Congress for an area around Pike's Peak (in present day Colorado). He claimed Idaho was the Native American Shoshone name – E Dah Hoe – meaning "Gem of the Mountains." By the time the deception was discovered Idaho was already in common use. Perhaps some would suggest that my entire career is fraudulent too, that I take all of the credit while my employees do all of the work.
So, hopefully you have enjoyed our geographic journey. It was certainly easy as you sat in your chair, and your sojourn came at no expense.