Many places in California have Spanish names with clear origins.
For example “Los Angeles” translates directly to “The Angels”. The name is a shortened version of the city’s original name when it was founded in 1781: El Pueblo de la Reina de los ngeles, which itself translates to “City of the Queen of the Angels”.
San Diego and San Francisco are named for the religious figures of San Diego de Alcalá de Henares and Saint Francis of Assisi, respectively.
But the name ‘California’ defies direct translation or an obvious inspiration, so where does it come from?
One theory is that the name comes from the oldest surviving major piece of French literature, “La Chanson de Roland”, which translates to “The Song of Roland”.
“The Song of Roland” is an epic poem from circa 1040 AD that details a betrayal that leads to the battle of 778 AD and its subsequent loss by Charlemagne’s army. The poem is found in many manuscripts – a sign of its popularity.
About three-quarters of the way into the 4,000-line poem, as Charlemagne mourns the death of his nephew Roland, a great military leader, he listed the places his kingdom could now be attacked—including A somewhat familiar name from.
A 1907 translation of French medieval literature scholar Jesse Raven Crosland reads:
“The Saxons will rebel against me, the Hungarians, the Bulgarians, and many hostile nations; the people of Romania, all of them the men of Apulia, the men of Africa, and the people of Californ.”
If you don’t know where California was, you’re not alone. The poem does not provide or mention any further details on caliphrine.
In 1922, the dean of the literary faculty of Poitiers P. Boisnade suggested that the name came from a town in northwestern Africa. The first part of Californ was derived partly from the Arabic word for a type of fortified city found in northwestern Africa: “art.” “Ifrin” is derived from Beni-Ifrin, a group of people living in one of those fortified cities.
Boisonnade said that Californ may have been a franchised combination of those words: Kala Ifrin, the fortified city of Ifrin.
But how did the Arabic-derived French name for a city in Africa become so popular with Spanish colonists that the name for such a large tract of land became?
A popular 16th-century novel is the most preferred theory as to which Spaniards may have chosen “California”.
“Las Sargas de Esplanadians” by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo is a chivalrous romance novel set in an island called California. The California historian Charles E. Chapman claimed in a 1921 report that Montalvo probably took the name from The Song of Roland.
“There can be no question, but a scholar like Ordnez de Montalvo was familiar with the ‘chanson de Roland’,” Chapman wrote in “History of California: The Spanish Period.”
The island of California in the book is inhabited by black women and is headed by Queen Calafia. The island has been described as having “steep cliffs and rocky shores”, and the only metal found on the island was gold.
Many depictions of the fictional Queen Calafia can be found today honoring the name of the Golden State.
In the early 20th century, both Chapman and Ruth Putnam, authors of “California: The Name”, researched the origins of the assignment of the name California to the land.
In 1533 Spanish colonists sailed for the Baja California peninsula, thought it to be an island and sent word of the island back home. The idea of California as an island has led some to believe that it may be the land described in “Las Sargas de Esplandión”.
One of the earliest written uses of the name for the actual location was in a 1542 journal entry by the explorer Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.
The name also appears in several reports by Giovanni Battista Ramuccio about the explorer Hernán Cortés of the 1550s, who Putnam quoted the book before learning of the peninsula’s existence.
A few years later, despite later expeditions finding that Baja California was actually a peninsula, for more than a century many European maps showed a large island that runs from what is now Mexico to the coast of the United States.
By the time the myth of the island was cleared, it was too late. The name stuck.
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