The Curious Origin of the Name ‘California’

California is the most populous state in the United States of America, and it is one of the most iconic: it is home to Hollywood, to the Golden Gate Bridge, to Alcatraz, and many other famous landmarks and institutions which have been immortalised and mythologised in film, literature, and the popular imagination.

But what is less well-known is that the place name ‘California’ is itself a literary creation: the name is derived from a work of literature.

The literary work in question is a long romantic novel composed in around the year 1500. Titled Las Sergas de Esplandián (i.e., ‘The Adventures of Esplandián’), this novel was the work of a Spanish writer named Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo (c. 1450-1505).

Montalvo also worked on the modern version of an old fourteenth-century chivalric romance, Amadis of Gaul; when he had finished that, he decided to write a sequel, and Las Sergas de Esplandián was that sequel. This book would prove popular among Spanish-speaking readers for at least a century: Miguel de Cervantes even names it as among Don Quixote’s library of books in his comic picaresque novel of 1605.

In Las Sergas de Esplandián, Montalvo described a mythical island which he named California. This island was located west of the Indies:

Know that to the right hand of the Indies was an island called California, very near to the region of the Terrestrial Paradise, which was populated by black women, without there being any men among them, that almost like the Amazons was their style of living.

The Amazons, of course, were warrior women mentioned in classical Greek mythology. And, as we’ll see, strong women played an important part in Montalvo’s conception of the island of California. He goes on:

These were of vigorous bodies and strong and ardent hearts and of great strength; the island itself the strongest in steep rocks and great boulders that is found in the world; their arms were all of gold, and also the harnesses of the wild beasts on which, after having tamed them, they rode; that in all the island there was no other metal whatsoever. They dwelt in caves very well hewn; they had many ships in which they went out to other parts to make their forays, and the men they seized they took with them, giving them their deaths, as you will further hear.

Montalvo goes on to tell us that the isle of California contained ‘many griffons’ and that it was ruled by a beautiful queen whose name was Calafia.

But how did Montalvo come up with the name California? There are several theories here. The coinage was possibly influenced by the Arabic words Khalif and Khalifa. However, given Montalvo’s knowledge of old European epic poems, it’s also possible that he was recalling the word ‘Califerne’, which appears in the 11th-century French poem The Song of Roland.

Whatever its ultimate derivation and etymology, ‘California’ would be lifted from the pages of Montalvo’s book to become one of the most recognisable place names in the whole world. How did this happen?

When sixteenth-century Spanish explorers under the command of Hernán Cortés first encountered the Baja California Peninsula, they mistook the peninsula for an island, and were put in mind of the island of California described in Montalvo’s novel. It’s even rumoured that they were taken in by stories that this ‘island’ was inhabited by Amazonian women. So the peninsula was named ‘California’, even though it’s not an island and is (blessedly) free from griffons.

California was, in many respects, the birthplace of the modern digital world we all inhabit. Nowadays it’s known for Silicon Valley where numerous tech firms are based, but back in 1969 California was the place where ARPANET, the forerunner to the internet, was set up.

And although we all know the most famous California on the planet, in the United States, there are numerous other places in the world which have also been given that name: in England, for instance, California is the name of a hamlet in Bedfordshire, a village in Berkshire, a suburban area of the city of Birmingham, and a seaside resort in Norfolk, among other places.

All of these Californias, like the American one, owe their name to a now-forgotten Spanish novel written half a millennium ago.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons.

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