California is a place name used by three North American states: in the United States by the state of California, and in Mexico by the states of Baja California and Baja California Sur. Collectively, these three areas constitute the region formerly referred to as The Californias. The name California is shared by many other places in other parts of the world whose names derive from the original.

Spanish explorers in the 16th century, when they first discovered the Baja California peninsula west of the Sea of Cortez, at first thought the peninsula to be a large island. The name "California" was applied to the supposed island, and was probably a reference to a mythical island land described in a popular novel of the time: Las Sergas de Esplandián. Several other origins have been suggested for the word "California", including Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, South Asian, and Aboriginal American origins. All of these are disputed.[1]

California originally referred to the entire region composed of the Baja California peninsula now known as Mexican Baja California and Baja California Sur, and the upper mainland now known as the U.S. states of California and parts of Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming. After Mexico's independence from Spain, the upper territory became the Alta California province. In even earlier times, the boundaries of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean coastlines were only partially explored and California was shown on early maps as an island. The Sea of Cortez is also known as the Gulf of California.

From the novel Las Sergas de Esplandián

The Island of California, from a map c. 1650 (restored)

California was the name given to a mythical island populated only by 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 to maps of what is now called the Baja California Peninsula, which they originally thought was an island. Once the name was on the maps it stuck.

Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal; y estaba poblada por mujeres negras, sin que existiera allí un hombre, pues vivían a la manera de las amazonas. Eran de bellos y robustos cuerpos, fogoso valor y gran fuerza. Su isla era la más fuerte de todo el mundo, con sus escarpados farallones y sus pétreas costas. Sus armas eran todas de oro y del mismo metal eran los arneses de las bestias salvajes que ellas acostumbraban domar para montarlas, porque en toda la isla no había otro metal que el oro.[2]

Know that on the right hand from the Indies exists an island called California very close to a side of the Earthly Paradise; and it was populated by black women, without any man existing there, because they lived in the way of the Amazons. They had beautiful and robust bodies, and were brave and very strong. Their island was the strongest of the World, with its steep cliffs and rocky shores. Their weapons were golden and so were the harnesses of the wild beasts that they were accustomed to taming so that they could be ridden, because there was no other metal in the island than gold.

Las Sergas de Esplandián, (novela de caballería)
by García Ordóñez de Montalvo.
Published in Seville in 1510.

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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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[6] or leader. The same word in Spanish was califa, easily made into California to stand for "land of the caliph" خلیف, or Calafia to stand for "female caliph" خلیفه .[7] Putnam discussed Davidson's 1910 theory based on the Greek word kalli (meaning beautiful) but discounted it as exceedingly unlikely,[7] a conclusion that Dora Beale Polk agreed with in 1995, calling the theory "far-fetched".[4] 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.[4] 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."[8] Polk characterized this theory as "imaginative speculation", adding that another scholar offered the "interestingly plausible" suggestion that Roland's Califerne is a corruption of the Persian Kar-i-farn, a mythological "mountain of Paradise" where griffins lived.[9]

Song of Roland

The Song of Roland, an 11th-century Old French epic poem, may have served as the inspiration for the name "California". The poem refers to the defeat suffered August 15, 778, in the retreat of Charlemagne's army at the hands of the Muslim army in Battle of Roncevaux Pass in the Pyrenees. On line 2924 of the poem, which is in verse number CCIX (209), the word Califerne is one of the lands mentioned, with no indication of its geographic location. It is, however, named after a reference to Affrike, or Africa.

Morz est mis nies, ki tant me fist cunquere
Encuntre mei revelerunt li Seisne,
E Hungre e Bugre e tante gent averse,
Romain, Puillain et tuit icil de Palerne
E cil d'Affrike e cil de Califerne;
Dead is my nephew, who conquered so much for me!
Against me will rebel the Saxons,
Hungarians, Bulgars, and many hostile men,
Romans, Apulians, and all those of Palermo,
And those of Africa, and those of Califerne;
Song of Roland, Verse CCIX (i.e. 209; lines 2920–2924), 11th century

It is likely that Ordóñez de Montalvo derived Califerne from caliph, since both works contain a similar plot point: a battle between Christian and non-Christian armies. Another possible source for California's name may be Calahorra in Spain.[10]

Alteration of Calida Fornax

According to another theory, the term could derive from the Old Spanish Calit Fornay, an alteration of the Latin Calida Fornax, meaning hot furnace.[11]

Application of the Name

The name California was applied to what is now the southern tip of Baja California as the island of California by a Spanish expedition led by Diego de Becerra and Fortun Ximenez who landed there in 1533 at the behest of Hernán Cortés.[12]

Cortés, on his third journey of exploration (1535–36), tried unsuccessfully to establish a colony at La Paz near the southern tip of the recently discovered Baja California Peninsula under a royal charter granting him that land.

Hernando de Alarcón, sent by the viceroy Mendoza—an enemy of Cortés—on a 1540 expedition to verify Cortés's discoveries, referred to the inhospitable lands as California, after the imaginary island in Las Sergas, discussed above. There is no question about Hernando de Alarcón's use of the term, nor about his allusion to Las Sergas, but there is question as to whether this is the first use of the name to refer to those lands and whether he intended the name as mockery. Alarcón provides a clear link from the literary, imaginary California to the real place, but his usage cannot be proven to be the actual origin, in that the name might predate him.[13][14]

Sebastião Rodrigues Soromenho, a Portuguese sea captain who explored the coast of California for the Spanish in 1595-96, was a native of Sesimbra, Setúbal, Portugal, a fishing town 30 km south of Lisbon where there is a place (part of the Sesimbra sand beach) called California Beach because a creek named "Ribeira da California" empties at this beach. It is not known exactly when the creek and beach first acquired the name.

Today the name California is applied to the Baja California Peninsula, the Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortés or Cortez), the U.S. State of California, and the Mexican states of Baja California and Baja California Sur.

Other origin theories

The word California may signify that it is a place that is hot in the manner of a lime kiln; both Spanish and Catalan have similar words taken from the Latin roots calcis (lime) and fornax (oven).[15]

Another suggested source is kali forno, an indigenous phrase meaning "high mountains".[16] However, the name "California" was printed in Montalvo's book before Spanish explorers spoke with Native Americans.

See also


  1. ^ See, for example, several theories cited at Etimología de California on etimologias.dechile.net. Accessed 1 April 2006.
  2. ^ Rodríguez de Montalvo, Garci (1526) [1496]. Las sergas de Esplandián [The Adventures of Esplandián] (in Spanish). Sabed que ala diestra mano de las Indias ouo una Isla llamada California mucho llegada ala parte del paraiso terrenal la qual sue poblada de mugeres negras sin que algun uaro entre ellas ouiesse: que casi como las amazonas ...  (The first mention of "California" occurs on the unnumbered page after page CVIII, in the right column.)
  3. ^ Hale, Edward Everett (March 1864), "The Queen of California", The Atlantic Monthly, 13 (77), pp. 265–279 
  4. ^ a b c Polk, 1995, p. 130
  5. ^ Putnam, 1917, pp. 293–294
  6. ^ The word khalifa خلیفه has a strong religious connotation in Arabic because the Quran states that Man is the steward of God's earth, implying that he is neither its owner or inheritor [Sura Al-Baqara 2:30].
  7. ^ a b Putnam, 1917, p. 356
  8. ^ Chapman, 1921, pp. 63–64
  9. ^ Polk, 1995, p. 131
  10. ^ Maas, Georgia (April 26, 2000). "The Maven's Word of the Day – California". Random House. Archived from the original on December 21, 2001. Retrieved December 17, 2017. 
  11. ^ "CALIFORNIA". Diccionario Etimológico (in Spanish). 
  12. ^ Stewart, George (1945). Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States. New York: Random House. pp. 11–17. 
  13. ^ Descubrimientos y Exploraciones en las Costas de California 1532–1650 ("Discoveries and Explorations on the Coasts of California 1532–1650", Madrid, 1947; 2ª edición 1982, pp. 113–141): relevant passage quoted and cited at Etimología de California on etimologias.dechile.net. Accessed 1 April 2006.
  14. ^ Primeras Exploraciones ("First explorations") on Portal Ciudadano de Baja California, on the official site of the Baja California state government. Accessed 1 April 2006.
  15. ^ Josep Font i Huguet (1980). Sentiment català (in Catalan). Josep Font i Huguet. p. 179. ISBN 978-84-300-3631-8. 
  16. ^ According to the Chronology of California History (accessed 1 April 2006) on the site of Sons of the Revolution in California, Mexican priest Miguél Venegas put forth this theory in 1757.



  • This article draws heavily on the corresponding article in the Spanish-language, which was accessed in the version of 20 March 2005.
  • The original text and English translation for the song of Roland follows Charles Scott Moncrieff (London, 1919), as reproduced at Orbis Latinus; many variant texts exist.

External links