"California Town Names" -- a Book Review

Who knew?

Being born and raised in California, I was quite accustomed to many of the names of our cities and towns but never really gave much thought to it until I came across a little book called "1,500 California Place Names; Their Origin and Meaning" by William Bright. Perusing through, I began to get a feel for our rich heritage, some historical names and geographic landmarks.

Originally, California belonged under Spanish rule. Our state was named for a beautiful queen of a fictional land of Amazons known as Calafia. If you have ever been to our sprawling state, you would know that northern California is very different from southern California and the San Joaquin valley is different from the Monterey Penninsula.

The Spanish language has masculine and feminine words in it, and that is reflected in the name of some cities. The masculine form of the word "Saint" is "San" and many municipalities are named to honor different people. San Jose, San Diego, San Fransisco and San Juan Capistrano to name a few. Jose is the Spanish form of Joseph and is a nod to the Virgin Mary's husband, Joseph. Fransisco refers to St. Francis of Assisi and Diego was a holy man named Didacus from the fifteenth century. The feminine form of "Saint" is translated "Santa" and many towns honor females. Santa Ana, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. Maria is for the Virgin Mary, Barbara was a third century maiden who was beheaded for her faith, and Cruz is Spanish for "cross" so Santa Cruz is "holy cross."

Other Spanish words found themselves as city names here in California. Our capitol, Sacramento is for "the holy Sacrament of communion." Laguna is Spanish for water and there are many cities by the shore; Laguna Seca, Laguna Canyon and Laguna Niguel to name a few. Some are just amusing, such as "Vacaville" which is literally "cow town." Los Banos can be "upscaled" to translate the baths, but people seem to smirk at the translation "the bathrooms." "La Brea" is Spanish for tar and the "La Brea tar pits" although a bit redundant does house the famous archaeological site. "Atascadero" is translated "to be stuck in the mud" but if you have visited this coastal town, what a place to be mired in! We once lived in a town called "El Toro" or 'the bull'; but the city was renamed to Lake Forest that sounded a little more elite and without much meaning in the name.

When you think of California, we need to remember that the Spanish weren't the only forefathers here. The Native Americans date back centuries and had their language name a few of our towns as well. "Natoma" meant "little place upstream" and the town sits off the Sacramento river. "Tahoe" means lake and is one of California's prime vacation spots due to it's beautiful water. "Cuyamuca" is "behind the clouds" and "Mojave" and "Suisun" are named after a specific Indian tribes.

Other towns are named after people. "Humbolt" which also has a university in town was named for a German Geographer Alexander von Humboldt. Ironically, he never visited the area. "Stockton" is after Commodore Robert F. Stockton who in 1846 took possession of California for the United States. "Marysville" was named for the wife of landowner Charles Covillaud and "Susanville" was for Susan, the daughter of pioneer Isaac Roop. "Donner Pass" gives testimony to the infamous group of pioneers who were stuck there during the winter of 1846. "Tarzana" was given it's name by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author who created the character of Tarzan.

Having such a rich Spanish heritage, it would be good to mention that Spanish pronunciation is used. For example, everywhere else in the United States "rodeo" would be pronounced "Ro-de-o" but in California it is "Ro-DAY-O." Imagine trying to call the swanky street in Los Angeles known for it's celebrity-style shopping by the name the cowboys use for their competitions! San Jose is "Ho-Say." The "J" is not pronounced. "La Jolla" is "La Hoy-A." The "J" and the "Ls" are not pronounced.

Some California cities are named for other exotic locations like "Lodi" was named for a town in Italy and "Lafayette" is for a French town. "Alpine" resembled native Switzerland and "Ripon" was after a postmaster's former home in Wisconsin.

From border to border, California Names explores the heritage of the Indians, missionaries like Father Junipero Serra who dotted the state with famous missions, Settlers, surveyors and miners who took part in giving California it's many names. Joined by the early Spanish landowners and their correct pronounciations, California is a vast land of beaches, forests, deserts and snow capped mountains that is home to celebrities, artists, farmers and engineers. As author William Bright says in his book "The names that those ancestors gave to California places are still on our tongues."

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