Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Biggest Misnomer of All Time?

When Columbus arrived in the New World 517 years ago, this pivotal moment of cultural contact was fraught with misunderstanding. Upon finding the native Lucayans on the small Caribbean island where he made landfall, Columbus dubbed them Indians, under the mistaken impression that he had navigated all the way to the eastern shores of Asia. Explorers and cartographers quickly figured out that Columbus was utterly mistaken, and yet even now his monumental error lives on in the word Indian to refer to indigenous peoples throughout the Americas.

Columbus thought he had made it to India, which at the time was a very broad term in the European imagination, encompassing all of southern and eastern Asia. This vague mental geography in part had to do with the way goods were shipped from the East. The riches of China, Japan, and the islands of southeast Asia were brought first to ports on the southern shore of the Indian subcontinent before being shipped onwards, so Europeans tended to see all of these Asian goods as coming from India (a name that derives from the Indus River). Since the time of Ptolemy, this expansive notion of India was broken down into different divisions, such as "Greater India," "Middle India," and "Lesser India." Thus Europeans would often pluralize India as the Indies.

When Columbus set sail, he carried a passport from his patrons, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, stating (in Latin) that he represented them on his voyage ab partes Indie, "toward the regions of India." Columbus thought the distance from the Canary Islands to Japan was about 4,440 km (2,760 miles), when in fact it's about 19,000 km (12,000 miles). On his return to Europe, he was still convinced he had found "India." He wrote a letter to the Spanish royal court stating "in 33 days I passed from the Canary Islands to the Indies" (en 33 días pasé de las islas de Canaria a las Indias). Of the first island that he reached, Columbus wrote, "to the first which I found I gave the name San Salvador ... the Indians call it Guanahaní" (a la primera que yo hallé puse nombre San Salvador ... los Indios la llaman Guanahaní). There's an apocryphal story that Columbus called the natives los Indios as a short form of una gente in Dios "a people in God," but The Straight Dope nicely debunks the myth; he really did think he had met "Indians."

By the time the explorer Amerigo Vespucci wrote of his travels to South America in 1502-4, it had become pretty clear that Columbus had missed "India" by a long shot. The cartographer Martin Waldseemüller published a world map in 1507, a year after Columbus died, showing a new continent based on Vespucci's journals. Waldseemüller called it America, from the Latinized form of Vespucci's first name. Yet even after Columbus's "India" misconception was dispelled, Europeans continued to call the natives of the New World Indians. The Indies lingered too, though in a narrower sense: the Caribbean islands were known as the West Indies, in contrast to the East Indies (which came to refer to the Malay archipelago).

In American usage, there wasn't much of a challenge to the term (American) Indian for indigenous peoples until the '60s and '70s, when Native American became preferred by many. Though Native American corrects the historical error of Columbus, it has its own problems, which I won't delve into here. You can find serious discussions of the nomenclatural controversy online at All Things Cherokee, Infoplease, Nativeweb, and Wikipedia. Suffice it to say, both (American) Indian and Native American will continue to coexist in common usage, as they are now usually seen as interchangeable synonyms.

It's hard to think of another misnomer that had such a huge historical impact. Granted, some of our medical and scientific terms enshrine errors from earlier centuries. One example I discussed here was influenza, originally named because it was believed that the illness was caused by "influence" from the stars. My brother Carl Zimmer recently wrote of another such misnomer in his monthly column on the brain in Discover magazine: non-neuronal cells in the brain are called glia, Latin for "glue," because they were thought of as merely a kind of putty supporting the neurons. "Today we know the name could not be more wrong," Carl writes, since glia are involved in all stages of learning, memory, and other kinds of thought.

Can you think of any other great misnomers of history? There are many stories about words supposedly arising out of miscommunications between European explorers and native peoples: thus, for instance, kangaroo and Yucatan both supposedly mean "I don't know." Most of these are just folk etymologies, however (The Straight Dope comes to the rescue again). One such etymology that actually seems legitimate is the one for indri, the lemur of Madagascar. French naturalist Pierre Sonnerat heard a native point out the animal, saying the Malagasy word iry ("there it is"), and he took that as its name. Or so the story goes.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Monday October 12th 2009, 2:28 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Thank you, Ben, for a very interesting article on the eve of this Indigenous Peoples' Day (AKA Native American Day in South Dakota). My dad (1911-2000) was American Indian. His parents met an an Indian school in South Dakota, but my grandfather was Duwamish from the Pacific Northwest Coast Salish tribes and my grandmother was White Earth Band Ojibwe from Minnesota.

The Indians I know use the phrase American Indian to refer to themselves. It is my term of choice. In my experience, the term Native American gets used occasionally with a sort of mocking tone. I think a lot of Indians think the problems of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas are too big to be solved by a simple, or a complex, renaming.

It is a strange thing to know oneself by a misnomer, but it is part and parcel of the ironies of the American Indians who also, as is reflected in the work of Sherman Alexie and others, have a highly developed sense of humor and a highly developed sense of the absurd.

When I was younger my French Canadian/German/Irish-American mother sent me a cartoon I still treasure. It shows an aboriginal man on a beach on the eastern shores of what would become the United States, looking out into the Atlantic and seeing the ships of Columbus in the distance heading toward the shore. He is shouting to some other Indians gathered behind him, "I have discovered Europeans!"
Monday October 12th 2009, 6:42 AM
Comment by: William C. (Columbia, MD)
I routinely access your column using an email link. Today, the short email blurb introducing today's topic referred to the natives of Guanahaní as Lucayans. Where did that term come from?

Loved Kcecelia's comments!
Monday October 12th 2009, 8:35 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
William: Lucayan comes from Lucayo, which is what the Taino people of the present-day Bahamas called themselves. Lucayo means "dweller of islands" -- the words cay and key come from the same Taino word for "island." (And the Caicos of Turks and Caicos comes from caya hico meaning "string of islands.")
Monday October 12th 2009, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Interesting article!

My uncle was a missionary in China before the Communists drove westerners out. He told me five decades ago that there was no such dish in the Chinese culinary repertoire as chop suey. Some Westerner had tasted some food that a Chinese person had prepared and said, "This is good! What is it?" The cook replied that it was just "a little of this; a little of that," which, to the Westerner's ear sounded like he said, "chop suey."

"This chop suey tastes good," the man said.

My uncle really knew the language and culture of North China. He repeated the original Chinese words that, he claimed, had given rise to the misunderstanding. I can't vouch for the accuracy of his story and have never confirmed it.

I think that it's one of those stories that are so good that if it isn't true, it ought to be.
Monday October 12th 2009, 10:15 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Don: Chop suey does come from a Cantonese expression for "miscellaneous chopped-up bits" (shap sui), but you're right to wonder if your uncle's story was ben trovato. It's an Anglicization like many other food terms that made their way from China to America, so there's no need to come up with a just-so story of cross-cultural misunderstanding. There must be something very appealing about these stories for them to show up in so many folk etymologies!
Monday October 12th 2009, 11:07 AM
Comment by: Joel N. (Falls Church, VA)
Lucayo is still the name of a place on the north coast of Puerto Rico - lovely beaches, and the best street cart food on the island.

Colombus's diaries would be fertile ground for a psychiatric evaluation, especially by the time of the 4th voyage. Having realized the truth of his "discovery," he was convinced that he was on a mission from God and his writing reads like a man gone mad.
Monday October 12th 2009, 11:18 AM
Comment by: Joel N. (Falls Church, VA)
Sorry, I meant "Having NEVER realized the truth..." He died believing he was in Asia, but given how his subsequent quests never went according to his plans (and maps), I have to believe there was a little cognitive dissonance going on in his brain.
Tuesday October 13th 2009, 3:53 AM
Comment by: Kcecelia (San Francisco, CA)
Hey William C. Thanks for your enthusiasm about my comments. It was most kind of you to say that you enjoyed them. I looked at you user profile and find you to have an intriguing life. I await your novel. And, just FYI, my brother-in-law grew up in Alameda, California, but his dad was from Louisiana and he was Cajun. His last name is Thibodeaux. I am sure you heard that name a lot in Louisisana. Cheers. Katherine.
Tuesday October 13th 2009, 4:07 AM
Comment by: Antonia D. (Sydney Australia)Top 10 Commenter
I shall start by saying that I have really enjoyed reading your article, then I shall continue by saying that Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy used “Albion” in their writings; an opera by Louis Grabu with an English text by John Dryden., entitled Albion and Albanius, which is the first full-length English opera that still survives, (and as explained by Dryden, the opera’s aim was to extend the subject beyond the limits of human nature), was performed in 1685 (I read about it but I would love to see it performed in our times); in the year 1793, when The Louvre opened in Paris as a museum, Augustin Ximenez (1726-1817), Marquis of Ximenez wrote a poem which contained the expression “La perfide Albion”, which means “perfidious Albion”; some of William Blake’s paintings bear titles such as Milton-A-Poem-Albion-On-The-Rock (which can be seen on http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/William-Blake/Milton-A-Poem-Albion-On-The-Rock,-1804.html )
or Albion-Rose (one of my favourite Blake’s paintings which can be seen on http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/thumbnail/209187/1/Albion-Rose.jpg )
and later we find books with titles such as Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (America: a Cultural History) by David Hackett Fischer, to name only one.

Would "Albion" be regarded as a misnomer?
Sunday November 1st 2009, 8:49 PM
Comment by: Frank G.
Fine article. I enjoyed it thoroughly. As for old Chris being a bit on the deranged side, what can you say for a man who makes a (roughly) 12,000 mile mistake?

Speaking of mistakes, what about planting the mythical kingdom of Huy Braseal on the eastern coast of South America?
Wednesday May 15th 2013, 9:58 PM
Comment by: alex L. (Toronto Canada)
I knew this information before, but nice article.

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