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 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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