It is hard to stay away from a simple proper noun like “California.” Mostly because it’s the part of the United States I believe I will forever call home, whether with my feet on the ground, or simply in the intangible sense. But also because the act of naming something is always a particularly fascinating process. The namer is maybe aware, on the surface, that his or her choice will probably leave a most indelible mark on a “thing.” At the same time, the namer might be caught by a certain fancy or haphazard excitement. Either way, the inertia of a name, once set, seems quite formidable.

But what is certain is that there is usually a story behind a name. And as one gets further and further away from its conception, names become something less understood, and more just known, becoming less obviously associated with the original intent, and more with that person’s personal understanding and relationship with the named thing.

What is fun is going back and discovering the original meaning of a name, and comparing it to one’s modern understanding. The overlap or lack thereof is sometimes enlightening. It should be noted that there are multiple opinions on the origin of the name, all of which are disputed to some degree. I’ve chosen the one below, though all of them are intriguing.

The name first appeared in what Kerwin Klein, Professor of History at UC Berkeley, called that age’s equivalent of a “supermarket romance novella.” This novella is called “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (Or “The Exploits of Espladán”), written by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo in 1510. In the novella, de Montalvo describes a mythical island named “California,” so named because of its Queen, Queen Calafia. She ruled over the Island of California, which was inhabited solely by exotic Amazonian warrior women. Ostensibly it was with this very popular novella in mind that the members of an expedition ordered by Hernán Cortez initially named the peninsula, which we now call Baja California, “California,” presuming it was an island.

With this much of the story, the roots of the name “California” seems to provide at least one clean overlap with the modern conception of the state. A progressive pusher of change; constantly in search of leveling gender barriers and promoting equal gender rights (among others); and ruled over, in part, by three very popular and strong women—US Senators Feinstein and Boxer, and Attorney General Kamala Harris. Maybe the name’s original conception still has applicability.

But sometimes past motivations behind a name overlap and sometimes they do not. We’ve barely scratched the surface of the story of Queen Calafia. Given that the statute of limitations on spoilers for “The Exploits” has almost certainly passed, consider this fair warning. Portions of the book’s plot follow:

According to Wikipedia (because I certainly don’t have a copy of “The Exploits” laying around), Queen Calafia might have been so named because of the arms she takes up in a battle for Constantinople by muslims against christians (though she was a pagan, the word in Arabic for “religious state leader” is “Khalifa,” and given the side she fights for, this could be the source of her name). Raising an army of warrior women and griffins, she meets in a head to head battle with the christian Espladán. The Queen is not only bested, but captured and then converted as well. Beaten and, dare I say, “tamed,” the men in the end easily rule over even the Queen of the race of warrior women. “Their best was no mach” sort of tosh.

This is a much more chauvinistic and sexist end to the story than we might have initially expected. “California” was probably less of a symbol of female empowerment, and more of a fertile land to be “plowed,” ruled over and controlled by men, with ample female “entertainment” close at hand. This attempted interpretation is especially ironic if you consider the abysmal gender ratio, or “sex imbalance” of California around the Gold Rush. What brought scores of men to this mystical far away place? Gold? Women? Probably the prospect of both, which for most remained merely a dream for their first decades in the state.

Most people would say we are now firmly outside of what ever sexist or gendered connotation may have earned this land its name. But some recent news coming out of LA complicates the progressive caricature. Though there is better representation of women in the California legislative chambers these days than in the past (21 of California’s Assembly members are women, on my count, which is still only just better than a fourth of the Assembly), and certainly more so than the United States Congress; and despite our US Senators and a key constitutional officer being women, the largest metropolitan area in the whole of the most populous state in the union (and the US’s second largest city), Los Angeles, is woefully short of adequately representing the millions of women who live there. I just thought it interesting this story was on the New York Time’s digital pages the same day I decided to delve more deeply into the meaning behind the name of “California,” and figured I would share.

Ultimately knowing the history and story behind a name is informative none the less. It gives invaluable context to one’s political struggles and sense of identity—taking stock of progress made and the work left to do. We can find both familiarity and alienation in the meaning behind a name.

Thanks for reading. Enjoy.


A state in the western US, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean; pop. 36,756,666 (est. 2008); capital, Sacramento; statehood, Sept. 9, 1850 (31). Formerly part of Mexico, it was ceded to the US in 1847, having briefly been an independent republic. Large numbers of settlers were attracted to California in the 19th century, esp. during the gold rushes of the 1840s; it is now the most populous state.

Fun little side note: I can only imagine how parts of the GOP would use evidence that California’s naming origin can be found in the idea of a Caliphate (or, an Islamic State) to buttress their oft cited claim of us not being part of the “real america.” Hell, maybe Bill O’Reilly would be all the more delighted at the idea of the bombing of Coit Tower.

… I’m also realizing this post probably—no, definitely—just showed up on the NSA’s hot list… Bombing, Caliphate, and Bill O’Reilly, in the same paragraph? Welp, it’s been swell folks.

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Posted in Etymology

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August 2013
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