Where Did California Get Its Name?

For some reason I had never heard about the debate over how California got its name until recently. Apparently 16th century Spanish explorers began referring to what is now Baja California Peninsula as “California” but didn’t leave behind any detailed explanation as to why they chose that name. The current best guess is that it is essentially a 16th century fanfic-style callout to a popular Spanish novel of the period.

The name “California” was applied to the territory now known as the state of California by one or more Spanish explorers in the 16th century and was probably a reference to a mythical land described in a popular novel of the time: Las Sergas de Esplandián.

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California was the name given to a mythical island populated only by beautiful Black Amazon warriors who used gold tools and weapons in the popular early 16th-century romance novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián) by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. This popular Spanish novel was printed in several editions with the earliest surviving edition published about 1510. The novel described the Island of California as being east of the Asian mainland, “very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise; and it is peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they live in the manner of Amazons.” The Island was ruled by Queen Calafia. When the Spanish started exploring the Pacific coast they applied this name on their maps to what is now called the Baja California Peninsula, which they originally thought was an island. Once the name was on the maps it stuck.

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For many years, the de Montalvo novel languished in obscurity, with no connection known between it and the name of California. In 1864, a portion of the original was translated by Edward Everett Hale for The Antiquarian Society, and the story was printed in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Hale supposed that in inventing the names, de Montalvo held in his mind the Spanish word calif, the term for a leader of an Islamic community. Hale’s joint derivation of Calafia and California was accepted by many, then questioned by a few scholars who sought further proof, and offered their own interpretations. George Davidson wrote in 1910 that Hale’s theory was the best yet presented, but offered his own addition. In 1917, Ruth Putnam printed an exhaustive account of the work performed up to that time. She wrote that both Calafia and California most likely came from the Arabic word khalifa which means steward or leader. The same word in Spanish was califa, easily made into California to stand for “land of the caliph” ????, or Calafia to stand for “female caliph” ?????  Putnam discussed Davidson’s 1910 theory based on the Greek word kalli (meaning beautiful) but discounted it as exceedingly unlikely, a conclusion that Dora Beale Polk agreed with in 1995, calling the theory “far-fetched”. Putnam also wrote that The Song of Roland held a passing mention of a place called Califerne, perhaps named thus because it was the caliph’s domain, a place of infidel rebellion. Chapman elaborated on this connection in 1921: “There can be no question but that a learned man like Ordóñez de Montalvo was familiar with the Chanson de Roland …This derivation of the word ‘California’ can perhaps never be proved, but it is too plausible—and it may be added too interesting—to be overlooked.”

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