Everyone Knows that the Word Comes From . . . Popular vs. Actual Etymologies

Tucumcari. Karabela. Canadian as in the river name. Where do these come from? “Everyone knows that . . .” doesn’t always match what the language people, or historians, know. Or think they know, because English isn’t the only language to borrow bits and pieces from other tongues. It’s just the most likely to. German translates, English steals.

“Karabela” is the name of a type of Polish cavalry sword. It’s a form of saber, but works better when used on foot than do many sabers. There are at least four possible sources for the name. One is that it comes from Turkish and means “black curse.” Many of the surviving examples do have black hilts, and it would fit the Polish attitude toward the Turks and vice versa (not best friends). Another source claims that it is a corruption of “Karbala,” the city in what is now Iraq that was known for sword making. Or it could come from Italian meaning “precious beautiful thing [cara bella].” Perhaps a Polish noble or sword maker named Karabeli introduced the sword to common use, because there are other weapons that bear the names of their creators or popularizers. Or none of the above. I’m inclined toward option number one, but that doesn’t mean much. Polish is not one of my languages, nor is Turkish.

When I moved to Texas, I was told that the Canadian River was named for French-Canadian fur trappers, or named by them. And there were beaver in the main river valley and tributaries, so OK, sounds good. Except the name appears before Canada existed, and as far as anyone can tell, no one familiar with northern beaver would bother coming down here. The pelts are not as good for what people wanted beaver for. No, the name comes from Spanish, from a term meaning a sheep path so worn that it has raised sides, a cañada. The term can also mean a box-canyon, which is what part of the valley looks like when approached from the west. So it was a rio cañadian.

Tucumcari is another term that has a wildly off-kilter folk etymology. A certain local tourist bureau used to spin a tale about an Indian princess (or chief’s daughter) named Tucumcari, or her lover named Tucumcari, and doomed love, and how one or the other of them plunged off a butte (Tucumcari Mountain) because of a broken heart, and so on and so forth. Alas, the Comanche language doesn’t work quite like that, and the name in Comanche probably means something like “high alone in a low place.” The Comanche named places for what they looked like, thus the “hills like prairie dog mounds” and “the river that flows near the hills that look like prairie dog mounds.” Or “the red muddy river.” Not quite what the Chamber of Commerce wants to use in their tourism pamphlets, alas.

6 thoughts on “Everyone Knows that the Word Comes From . . . Popular vs. Actual Etymologies

  1. “Idaho” is supposedly derived from one of several local Indian phrases, with “Gem of the Mountains” the most common.
    The reality is much more entertaining.
    It was a hoax. It doesn’t mean anything. It was a smart alec messing with his fellow congress critters. He narrowly missed naming Colorado Idaho, only because he bragged about how he was making fools of his fellows. Then he came back a couple of years later, made a point of not changing a bit of his pitch, and successfully named Idaho Territory.

    • Yep, and we were taught in Idaho history class that it meant either “Behold! the Sun Shining on the Mountain” or “Gem of the Mountains.” Fun fact, When the congress was debating admitting Colorado to the union, enterprising miners anticipating the then new state of “Idaho” changed the name of the mining camp on Clear Creek to Idaho Springs in an attempt to snag the state Capital from Cherry Creek (present day Denver). After the hoax was exposed, the state entered the union as Colorado, but the Idaho Springs name stuck.

  2. Heh, English doesn’t just steal, it mugs other languages in dark alleys, beats them, THEN steals what it wants and corrupts the hell out of it!

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