Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
Facts are stranger than fiction.
The last couple of weeks I was in “California,” or rather “the Californias,” moving from the Mexican state of Baja California (Lower California) to the modern U.S. state of California. Originally the name applied to both of these as well as Baja California Sur (South Lower California) and parts of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.
Spanish conquistadors affixed the name to this vast territory in the early 16th century, when they knew hardly anything about it. In fact they thought it was an island and drew early maps accordingly.
As for the name, they had plucked it out of a novel that one or another Spanish sailor might well have carried in his knapsack from Iberia. Las Sergas de Esplandián (“The Adventures of Esplandián”), published in Seville in 1510, is the fifth volume in a series of chivalric romances by Castilian writer Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The first volume was Amadís de Gaula (“Amadis of Gaul”), about Esplandian’s father. Though obscure today, chivalric romances about Amadis were extremely popular in Spain circa 1500. In Don Quixote, the eponymous hero is obsessed with knights generally and Amadis in particular, and his attempt to emulate their exploits is what sets the plot in motion. Parts of that novel specifically parody Montalvo’s work. And Don Quixote is said to have a copy of Las Sergas on his bookshelf.
In Las Sergas, “California” is the name of an island “on the right hand from the Indies... very close to a side of the Earthly Paradise.” This island “was populated by black women, without any man existing there, because they lived in the way of the Amazons.” The Spanish explorers thought the name appropriate for the unknown land to the west, and once they put it on the maps it stuck.
But where did Montalvo come up with the word “California”? Historian Edward Everett Hale pointed out the obvious in 1864 when he underlined the linguistic connection between “California” and “calif,” which in Spanish means an Islamic leader. This in turn is obviously a loan word from Arabic “khalifa,” or caliph — though in Arabic “khalifa” actually means “successor” and derives from “khalf” meaning “after,” because caliphs were successors to the Prophet Mohammed. (“Imam” in Arabic in turn means “in front of,” because an imam stands in front of his congregation.)
It would have made a lot of sense for a Castilian author writing in the late-15th or early-16th century to look to Arabic words to connote an exotic land. After all, the Christian Reconquista of Iberia would have been recent events to him — Muslim Granada didn’t fall to Christian forces until 1492, the same year Columbus reached the Americas.
Montalvo might have also been inspired by another source, the 11th-century French epic poem La Chanson de Roland, “The Song of Roland.” Roland was a nephew of Charlemagne, and the poem depicts his death fighting Muslim forces that had reached the Pyrenees (on the border between France and Spain) in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778 A.D. (In the actual battle, it was the Basques, not the Moors, who attacked Frankish forces and killed Roland. It wouldn’t be the last time Muslims get blamed for something that someone else did.)
And in one part of the poem, Charlemagne mourns Roland as follows:
When I arrive at Aix, in my Chapelle,
But once again, as there was no place in the real world named “Califerne,” the proper noun here presumably means something like “the land of the caliph” and so also derives from Arabic. This interpretation makes sense given that Charlemagne is enumerating hostile places and peoples. He has finished with enemies in Europe (Saxons, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Romans, Apulians, and the people of Palermo or Sicily), and now he mentions “Califerne” next to Africa, indicating that this place is comparably distant — in the Middle East, perhaps.
So “California” basically means “caliphate.” Chew on that one.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."