Monday, April 27, 2015

English Not Spoken Here

Visiting Corpus Christi, Texas, recently, I was musing on the city’s name, which is Latin for “Body of Christ,” referring to the adjacent bay, which Spanish explorers named (probably with the encouragement of pious priests) to commemorate the Eucharist. 

Many American place names are actual words in other languages, provided by the explorers and settlers from various countries, mostly Spain and France, with occasional bits of Dutch or German. Among the French names are Baton Rouge (“Red Stick”), LA; Eau Claire (“Clear Water’) and Fond du Lac (“End of the Lake”), WI; Boise (“Wooded”), ID; Butte (“Ridge”), MT; Terre Haute (“High Ground”), IN; Des Moines (“of the Monks”), IA;  and La Grange (“The Barn”) and La Porte (“The Door”) in several states,

One unusual French name is Coeur d’Alene, ID. This was the French name for the Schitsu'umsh tribe in that area, and it means “Heart of an Awl.” The awl, a leather-working tool, is thought perhaps to indicate the skill of the Indian artisans or the fact that they were sharp traders in leather goods.

Spanish city names include El Paso (“the Pass”), Amarillo (“Yellow”), Refugio (“Refuge”), TX; Las Vegas (“Fertile Valleys”), NV; and Sacramento (“Sacrament”), Fresno (“Ash Tree”), and “Los Angeles” (“The Angels”), CA.  

Among the very few German names are Anaheim (“Anne’s home”), CA, and New Braunfels (“New Brown Rock”), TX.

One that’s always difficult for Americans to pronounce—even for those who live there—is the name of the area of New York’s Bronx known as Spuyten Duyvil.  It’s Dutch for “Spouting Devil,” referring to the rapid current in the waters.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is sometimes known as the “Spouting Devil,” a name he lives up to at every orifice.

            Oh, take me back to Spuyten Duyvil,
            No place on earth can ever rival
            The diabolic name of this strange curio.
            But if you cannot take me there,
            Then I’ll be happy anywhere--
            In Quitaque, Mexia, or Refugio.

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