Why Arkansas?

The following question was posted on the reddit AskHistorians forum:

The state of Arkansas was apparently originally known as the Territory of Arkansaw [sic]. Why would they have changed the spelling from Arkansaw to Arkansas despite the latter not resembling the name’s pronunciation?

User ScallopOolong responded with a long comment beginning:

George R. Stewart has a whole chapter on this general topic in Names on the Land. He says that Arkansas is the only state name “about which pronunciation and spelling ever rose to be a major issue”. Arkansas/Arkansaw, originally referring to the river, was part of the Louisiana Purchase and, like many other place names in the region, Americans adopted the French pronunciation (or at least an approximation of it). And the name was often, but not always, spelled accordingly: Arkansaw.

In 1819 Congress passed a law creating a territory spelled, according to the Act of Congress, Territory of Arkansaw. In the very same year a New Yorker named William Woodruff moved to the new capital of Arkansaw Territory. Woodruff felt very strongly about language and spelling. He even attacked Noah Webster for including the word “lengthy” in his dictionary, for clearly not being a real word. Woodruff was also a printer by trade and set up a newspaper in the new Arkansaw Territory. In the first issue he printed the Act of Congress that had created Arkansaw Territory. In this Act the word “Arkansaw” occurred eight times. Woodruff felt very strongly it ought to be Arkansas, which was still a common alternate spelling. In his newspaper’s printing of the Act of Congress he changed all eight mentions of Arkansaw to Arkansas.

The population of the territory was only about 10,000, and very many could not read. And most had little to no preference over the spelling of the territorial name. In any case, Woodruff’s newspaper had a huge influence on this particular issue. As Stewart puts it, “Apparently even Congress forgot about [their] original spelling, and later bills used Arkansas”. Reprintings of the Act of Congress quickly started spelling it Arkansas, even official, federal printings. In short, official documents “simply changed the spelling without comment, as if a mere clerical error were being corrected”.

There are a great many more details which I will elide to get to this part:

In 1881 the state legislature passed an official resolution declaring the pronunciation to be “Arkansaw”, in accord with the local manner of speech. They also declared the pronunciation Arkánsas “an innovation to be discouraged”.

For most of the country, this settled it. The state was spelled Arkansas but pronounced Arkansaw. So be it. Except! There is also the Arkansas River, which flows through a great deal of Kansas. The people of Kansas tended to call the river the Arkánsas River. And there was a town by the border called Arkánsas City. After the state of Arkansas declared the pronunciation Arkansaw, and the rest of the country said “okay”, dictionaries soon began to say the river was also pronounced Arkansaw, as was Arkansas City, in Kansas. Some people of Arkansas tried, mostly half-heartedly, to convince the people of Kansas to pronounce the river and Arkansas City “arkansaw”. But since they had called upon local usage tradition in their own support of “arkansaw” they could not easily say that the people of Kansas had to abandon their local pronunciation traditions.

Arkansas City, Kansas, is still pronounced Arkánsas. And in much of Kansas the Arkansas River is likewise pronounced Arkánsas. The same goes for Arkansas Street, in Wichita, Kansas.

Fascinating stuff, especially if you have roots in Arkansas, as I do. (I wrote about Names on the Land here and here.)

Comments

  1. Still can’t get over the fact — which I learned last month from a Snapple cap or something — that ‘Idaho’ is a completely made-up word.

  2. marie-lucie says:

    Didn’t we discuss this here a few years ago?

  3. R, that was mentioned on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” this morning, which caused me to search and find this article, which also says that Idaho was originally going to be the name for the Colorado Territory, but later was used for the name of what was originally going to be called the Montana Territory.

  4. Greg Pandatshang says:

    So, Arkansas and Kansas are basically a doublet? Wikipedia sheds some light, but not that much.

  5. Arkansas could get revenge for the Arkánsas River thing by persuading Missouri to start pronouncing the urban center “Kansaw City.”

  6. David Marjanović says:

    ‘Idaho’ is a completely made-up word.

    …It’s perfectly cromulent, then.

  7. @Greg: Arkansas are the just the leading Kansai, the kansaest of them all.

  8. So, Arkansas and Kansas are basically a doublet?

    Or a triplet, with the Ozarks (if = aux Arks.).

  9. David Marjanović says:

    Arkansas are the just the leading Kansai

    Bah, that’s just a coincidence! In reality, they’re Vikings, obviously: they’re pirates – people (kansa in Finnish) who make arrr.

    …Kansas, then, is inhabited by… just people; nothing to see here, go along, nothing in particular is the matter with Kansas.

  10. R, that was mentioned on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” this morning, which caused me to search and find this article, which also says that Idaho was originally going to be the name for the Colorado Territory, but later was used for the name of what was originally going to be called the Montana Territory.

    Good heavens, what an interesting story! I urge everyone to click the link; here’s a tidbit:

    Even though it had been rejected for Colorado, the name “Idaho” had great vitality. Whoever had coined the word had hit upon a remarkably acceptable name. By the summer of 1860, “Idaho” had already gained popularity both in the Colorado Rockies and in the Pacific Northwest. It had the merit of sounding so much like an Indian name that, before long, scarcely anyone would believe that it wasn’t one.

  11. Marie-Lucie: I wrote three years ago as part of the discussion on Canada goose:

    Colorado usage is divided. I don’t know what Mexicans call [the Arkansas River]: it was part of the international border from 1821 to 1848.

  12. Question for the thread: does anyone know where in the Ohio Valley these people originally lived? I get general references to several waves coming down the river between the time De Soto recorded the Tunica up along the Mississippi in Missouri and then the Osage and Kaw and the others being in that area, but nothing very specific. I understand the Five Nations had something to do with the pushing them out. Can anyone add anything?

  13. While Idaho is the only state name with a blatantly fraudulent etymology, a few others are also interesting for special reasons. A Basque etymology has been proposed for Arizona (for once, Theo Vennemann is not to blame). California may have been named after a fictitious island from Las Sergas de Esplandián, a chivalric novel published 500 years ago (Don Quixote owned a copy, teste Cervantes). Nobody is quite sure why Oregon is called Oregon.

  14. January First-of-May says:

    California may have been named after a fictitious island

    The name Califerne goes back to at least the Song of Roland, and very possibly had something to do with the word “caliph” originally.

    (Though the one actual caliph that shows up in Chanson de Roland isn’t a particularly major character – that scene really sounds like Turoldus, or whoever actually wrote it, didn’t have a very good grasp of Muslim noble titles. Mind you, that’s a minor error compared to claiming the Muslims worshipped Apollo…)

  15. J.W. Brewer says:
  16. Bathrobe says:

    The article that Keith Ivey links to notes this point:

    A serious problem generally unrealized in the earlier years confronted those who accepted the “gem of the mountains” interpretation of the name “Idaho.” Reference to mountains in the definition posed no particular difficulty, assuming that the Indian language sought for belonged to a tribe of mountain dwellers. But the concept of gem is a white man’s notion, quite foreign the thought of ordinary American Indian peoples.

    The Idaho World correspondent, who wrote November 30, 1880, explained that even in 1859 he had realized that the Arapaho Indians certainly were unlikely to have thought about, or to have been able to talk about, anything as sophisticated as a gem. He had another good point, too…

    Given that the expression ‘gem of the mountains’ is redolent of English and sounds suspicious as a translation from an Indian language, does the aspersion that the Arapaho were “unlikely to have been able to talk about anything as sophisticated as a gem” hold water?

    I find it interesting that 19th century racial and ethnic notions can still be quoted with a straight face in the 1960s, which I assume is when the article was written.

  17. SFReader says:

    California was named after Caliphate.

    Caliphate of Cordoba was the one most familiar to the Spanish.

    https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0e/Califato_de_Córdoba_-_1000.svg/686px-Califato_de_Córdoba_-_1000.svg.png

  18. marie-lucie says:

    Bathrobe: Given that the expression ‘gem of the mountains’ is redolent of English and sounds suspicious as a translation from an Indian language, does the aspersion that the Arapaho were “unlikely to have been able to talk about anything as sophisticated as a gem” hold water?

    Indeed it does not.

    19th C paintings of Indian people in ceremonial costumes show that these costumes were often quite elaborate, with sewn-on decorations as well as necklaces and other jewelry, made of various shiny and/or colorful materials. When European beads were introduced, they were adopted as yet another type among the traditional decorations, and called by native names. So it is not surprising that the native word for some type of decorative stone was translated as “gem” as the best English equivalent. After all, gems are stones, whether or not they have been set for use as jewelry.

    Since “Idaho” is supposed to mean ‘gem of the mountains’, it is possible that the “gem” in question refers to rock quartz, which was greatly sought after (although perhaps for “magical” properties rather than for personal decoration).

  19. SFReader says:

    The online Arapaho dictionary doesn’t have word for ‘gem’, but it’s quite basic.

    I found however, that

    MOUNTAIN hohe’; in the mountains: hoh’eni’, hoho’eni’

    At least, -ho in Idaho could be authentic…

  20. “California was named after Caliphate.”

    SFReader, that’s plausible. The story I heard growing up California was that that novel involved a queen named Califia who ruled a mysterious island kingdom, and that when the Spanish found Baja California, they assumed it was an island and named it “California” after that queen. They originally called what is now the (USA) state of California “Alta California” to distinguish it from what they now called “Baja California.”

  21. Rodger C says:

    I’ve also read (probably new-age bullshit) that “California” comes via Turoldus from medieval Farsi, Kar-i Farn, “Mountain of the Hidden Glory.”

    In the article, the Arapaho expert “Dr. Zdenek” should read “Dr. Zdenek Salzmann.”

  22. Lars (the original one) says:

    for once Theo Vennemann is not to blame — his is a name that will live forever…

    Does this kind of endorsement, I suppose you could call it, have a technical name? Ad neminem springs to mind, if read as ‘none of the usual culprits did this, so it’s probably OK.’ Especially if TV is the dominant culprit in etymologizing from Basque.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    He’s the dominant culprit in etymologizing European place names, especially but by no means only river names, from Basque. This approach he deduces from one probably correct and three probably incorrect assumptions:
    1) Basque is the last survivor of a language family that used to cover much of Europe;
    2) specifically, it is descended from – in modern terms – what the Western Hunter-Gatherers spoke when they came in after the Last Glacial Maximum and were the first to name the features of the uninhabited land;
    3) remarkably little language change happened since then;
    4) despite the complete lack of evidence from Basque itself, there once was a root */is/ meaning “water”.

    2 is explicit, 3 is left unsaid.

  24. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks David, I agree.

  25. David L says:

    Nobody is quite sure why Oregon is called Oregon

    I thought it was because that’s where the Oregon trail ended up.

  26. I thought it was because that’s where the Oregon trail ended up.

    That’s putting the covered wagon before the horse.

  27. The covered wagon definitely came before the horse. In the olden days, horses pushed wagons, like a shopping trolley.

  28. “And wolves are called that because they wolf down their food.” —Mark Shoulson

  29. “I’ve also read (probably new-age bullshit) that “California” comes via Turoldus from medieval Farsi, Kar-i Farn, “Mountain of the Hidden Glory.””

    We used to say it really meant “as hot as an oven” or “hot oven” along about late July.

  30. Rodger C says:

    Jim, that one actually makes punning sense. I lived in Spring Valley (SD County) for four years.

  31. And as I learned here years ago, sharks are called that because they act like sharks.

  32. @Y:. That is indeed how sharps came to be called “sharks.”

  33. Someone once told me “Sheep don’t understand when they are about to be slaughtered. That’s why they are called sheep.”

  34. marie-lucie says:

    How about: “Live in the present. The present is a gift, that’s why it’s called the present.”

  35. David Marjanović says:

    That’s lovely. ^_^

  36. marie-lucie says:

    I have actually heard that!

  37. James Kabala says:

    Perhaps none rise to the subjective level of a “major issue,” but I can think of at least four other states (Missouri, Nevada, Oregon, and Hawaii) that have alternate pronunciations. I also once heard Vermont pronounced more like “Vermunt,” but I don’t know if that was ever common anywhere or just a personal idiosyncrasy.

  38. George Grady says:

    @James:

    What about Iowa?

  39. The first syllable of Montreal takes /ʌ/ locally and, I think, among Canadians in general, but almost always has /ɑ/ for Americans. (I’m unfamiliar with /ʌ/ in Vermont, though.)

  40. Please don’t ruin this limerick by mispronouncing Vermont:

    An Anglican curate in want
    Of a second-hand portable font
    Will exchange for the same
    A portrait (in frame)
    Of the Bishop Elect of Vermont.

  41. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    I know an arcane saw about how Arkansas came about.

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