Thursday, November 19, 2015

Words of California

Words of California

In the world of words we tend to think in terms of languages, regions, & dialects. This week we’ll turn those tables & consider words born in a chunk of the map identified with no thought at all to language & dialect: the state of California.

In a case of etymology reflecting the uglier side of history, the abalone got its English name in 1850. The word abalone was stolen from the Spanish (abulon). And the Spanish stole it from the native Costanoan speakers of California who called the shellfish aluan.

In 1855 the word shenanigan became a way of defining wild behavior on the streets of San Francisco. It’s unclear where the word came from, but most linguists seem to lean toward the Spanish word chanada, a word meaning trick or deceit.

In 1856 Californians borrowed the Chinese pidgin word chow-chow, cut it in half and had chow, a new word for food. Interestingly, the pidgin word chow-chow was a reduplication of the Chinese word tsa or cha, meaning mixed.

Speaking of mixed, the word for the mixed drink, martini (born in 1886) may or may not have been born in California. Though some etymologists argue that martini comes from a popular manufacturer of vermouth, Martini & Rossi, others insist the drink was first mixed in Martinez, California, & was named after the town.

The word boysenberry was born in California. Named after its botanist father, Rudolf Boysen, both the word boysenberry & the berry itself (a blackberry/raspberry hybrid) showed up in 1935.

In 1964 the Californian word skateboard appeared. The practice of attaching roller-skate wheels to a piece of wood started in Southern California in 1963. By the summer of 1964 skateboarding was popular all over the country.

If you have anything to say about these pesky Californians messing with our language, please leave a comment.

Big thanks to this week’s sources: Etymonline, Wordnik, Merriam Webster, & the OED.


  1. I'd never heard that story about Martinez/martinis! It's true that everywhere else in the world, if you order a "martini" you get vermouth on the rocks. (Usually sweet white vermouth, which is delicious.) I wonder what a bartender would do if you ordered a "Martinez"?

    I think we can be very proud that shenanigans were invented right here in the Golden State!

  2. Hi Anne,
    It's fair to say shenanigans have been going on forever & will continue to do so, but what a great Californian word to label them.

  3. How about the name California? This from Wikipedia: The name "California" was applied to the territory now known as the state of California by one or more Spanish explorers in the 16th century and was probably a reference to a mythical 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, Latin, South Asian, and Aboriginal American origins. All of these are disputed. (Lee Sutter, aka Flora Bunda)

  4. Wow! I always thought that shenanigan was an Irish word..It just SOUNDS Irish, doesn't it? (Lee Sutter)

  5. The etymology of Shenanigan starting in San Francisco seems perfect. I learned a few nights ago that we Californian's are the only ones who insist on putting "the" in front of our highways. Such shenanigans.

  6. Maybe we should petition to re-name our fair state Shenanifornia.