Friday, June 13, 2014

How Earth and Talon Got Their Names

In the past I could pin-point on a map the location of all 50 states in the USA, as well as their capitals, but President Obama has me beat as he claimed in a 2008 Oregon campaign appearance, "I've now been in 57 states. I think one left to go. Alaska and Hawaii..." Well, is that 57 plus 1 or plus 2? I don't mean to belittle our President, for he is more clever than I, and he has made a very good living giving slick speeches and making promises, kept or not. I'm positive that he would not be capable of running Buchholz Nursery however.

The etymology – word origin – of state names has fascinated me since junior high, especially because my own Oregon still has a nebulous etymology. We know the history of many ancient place-names, so how did it become so difficult to recount the relatively recent naming of Oregon? What's funny is that I have a half dozen place-name etymology books, and all of them come up with a different story, and now we have the internet to suggest some new ones. Actually, most don't "suggest," but rather stridently insist that they have the answer. One example is that Oregon is derived from French ouragan – for "hurricane" – referring to strong winds in the Columbia Gorge encountered by French explorers. Or perhaps it was derived from Spanish orejón for "big ears," as early Spanish explorers described the natives. Possibly it was derived from the Shoshone words ogwa for "water" and pe-on for "west;" and that picked up from the Sioux, who referred to the Columbia as the "river from the west." And many more...

My recent visit to Tennessee informed me that Tenasi was the name of a Cherokee village. Washington, of course, was selected to honor President George, while Hawaii is the legendary homeland of Polynesians and means "place of the Gods." California is a favorite, as it was probably named for the "Island of California," a place ruled by the fictional Queen Calafia (or Califa) from a 16th century Spanish novel. The island was peopled by women, without any man among them, and they lived in the manner of the Amazons, a group of black women warriors who were known to cut off their left breast so that they could better draw their bow strings. Yet another theory for the California name suggests that it is a place as "hot as a lime kiln" because in Catalan calc means "lime" and forn means "oven."

Waldseemüller map

I wonder what percent of Americans know the story of their own country's naming, and is that percent increasing or decreasing from when I was a teen? I didn't ask that question right, and I should have said "our continent's naming." But even that's not right, as Amerigo Vespucci never made it to North America. It is even possible that Amerigo was not aware that the continents were named for him anyway, as the German Martin Waldseemüller produced a world map in 1507 based simply on Vespucci's writings. Waldseemüller could see no reason why anyone would object to calling the New World the Land of Americus since the Italian Vespucci discovered it. The Latin Americus was feminized to America since both "Europa and Asia got their names from women."

I'm fascinated that the Americas were a couple of thriving continents with sophisticated societies producing amazing accomplishments...long before the barbarous Europeans arrived. I actually had a European intern, here about twenty years ago, who lamented the fate of the American natives, that "yeah, it was really a shame how you screwed them over, blah blah blah." I chastised the cerebral and historically-challenged lightweight, that it was "you, you Europeans who did the dirt."

I wonder if Canadians think of themselves as "Americans," even at all? Or are they completely, entirely Canadians and nothing more, not of the same species as their imperialistic thugs to the south? Twenty years ago I spent a couple of weeks with a Canadian and we bantered back and forth about ourselves and our world. I asked him what was the problem, why did Canada hate America so? He replied, "actually we don't hate you, but being next to you is like sleeping with an elephant...that every time you Americans turn in your sleep you smash us." I called his country "America-Light" and the "Shadow Country," and that "meeting a Canadian was about as much fun as eating celery." He took it in good humor and dished it back.

His beloved country was named as a result of Frenchman Jacques Cartier's expedition up the St. Lawrence River in 1535. The natives pointed the way to Stadacona (present day Quebec City) and used the word kanata which was the Iroquois word for "village." Cartier used the word for Stadacona and the greater area around it, and by the mid 1500's maps indicated that all the land north of the St. Lawrence River was Canada. Naturally Cartier claimed the territory for France, and that explains why government forms – even in British Columbia – are written in French as well as English.

I once met a Canadian nurseryman of Japanese descent. He must have spent a lot of time in Canada because he said "eh" after every sentence. Why Canadians are so found of the eh interjection is hard to fathom. Apparently if you live one mile north of the border, eh, you will use it, and if one mile south you won't. Basically eh is a question tag where the speaker attempts to cause a reply, as in "It's hot today, eh?" Actually other languages use the ploy as well. In Japanese, "ne" at times follows a statement. My children's Japanese grandfather thinks the kids are cute, so he exclaims "kawaii ne" with a vocal upturn at the end. In any case I would rather hear eh and ne than the ubiquitous "awesome" that accompanies everything said by American youth. When a twenty-year-old waitress takes your order for a turkey sandwich, it is not appropriate to follow the request with "awesome." The Grand Canyon is awesome, not a turkey sandwich. By the way, nice piercings all over your face.

The sky is cloudy today, and ský is Old Norse for "cloud," and that from Proto-Germanic skeujam for "cloud, cloud cover." Pie-in-the-sky came from the song "The Preacher and the Slave" by Joe Hill in 1911, and was written as a parody of the hymn "In the Sweet By-and-By" in an attempt to make fun of the Salvation Army's hymns.

Anyway, the whole point of this blog is that the words we use to describe our world have an origin, and I don't take any word or phrase for granted. Even Earth, our planet, has a story. About a thousand years ago some Germanic tribes migrated to Britain and influenced the language. Earth came from the Anglo-Saxon word erda or erde which referred to the ground or soil. In Old English it became eor(th)e or ertha, and it is believed that the origin is based on the ancient Indo-European er. Earth is the only planet name in our Solar System that is not derived from Greco-Roman mythology.

In 2013, 497 American boys were named Talon, down from 517 in 2012, so there's not many of us. I once met an attractive girl who thought Talon was cool, and wondered how I got it, like, like why was I named for an "eagle claw?" The only answer I have is that my father had a friend named Talon, and his came from a character in a Louis L'Amour novel. I was pleased that she liked my name, but in Old French talon means "heel," from Latin talus. The heel origin would explain everything to a lot of people.

"Hello, I'm Talon"

My wife and I were in the grocery store about twelve years ago. A white-trash mother and her bratty son were in the aisle next to us. The kid was apparently handling stuff and his mother snapped at him, "Talon! Talon put that back or I'm gunna swat you!" My wife and I looked at each other in amazement. I walked around the aisle to get a look at this Talon, and yep, the rolly round-head did get a swat.

I promise that next week I'll get back to plants.

"Thank goodness"


  1. You need to stick to plants please!!!!

  2. I love when others tell us what we "NEED" to do :)

    interesting info

  3. Pretentious to say the least! I prefer your plant based conversations.

  4. oh i loved this..had no idea where it was headed...but a great read