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On Columbus Day, a Look Back at the "Indian" Misnomer

As Americans celebrate Columbus Day, it's worth reflecting on the complicated cultural and linguistic legacy that Christopher Columbus left behind. There's a single word that aptly illustrates this legacy and all of its contradictions: Indians, the mistaken name that Columbus gave to the native peoples of the Americas.

For Columbus Day a few years ago, Ben Zimmer devoted a Word Routes column to this history-changing misnomer. A sampling:

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). 

You can read the whole column here. And if you think the word misnomer means something like "misconception," Wendalyn Nichols elucidates the term here.

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