I ran across the following amusing etymology in California Place Names, by Erwin G. Gudde (pronounced “goody”):

Coachella (ko-CHEL-a, ko-a-CHEL-a): Valley, town [Riverside Co.] …Since shells could be found in the valley… Dr. Stephen Bowers called it Conchilla Valley in a lecture before the Ventura Society of Natural History in 1888, after Spanish conchilla ‘shell’… and when the region was surveyed by the USGS before 1900, A.G. Tingman, a storekeeper in Indio, proposed the change of the name to Conchilla Valley. This name was accepted by the prospectors and homesteaders, and apparently also by W.C. Mendenhall of the USGS. At any rate, he used the name Conchilla as late as 1909… But the cartographers apparently misread the name, and it appeared as Coachella Valley on the San Jacinto atlas sheet—a “bastard name without meaning in any language,” as Mr. Tingman is reported to have remarked. But other inhabitants of the valley considered the name “unique, distinctive and euphonious,” and in 1909 the BGN made the name official.

Which explains why it’s not pronounced with the Spanish /y/ for ll: it’s not Spanish, it’s Bastard.
Addendum. You can investigate Gudde courtesy of Google Book Search.


  1. And despite the heat, a wonderful place to have a music festival.

  2. The bastardization of the Spanish reminds me of my family’s bemusement–on my mother’s side we’re Mexican– when we heard the local pronunciations of western Illinois’ communities of Aledo (uh LEE do), Rio (RYE oh), Cordova (Cor DOE vuh), and Alaska’s Valdez (I need to learn the hypertext for the phonetic symbols. Anyone know a handy reference?)
    Anyway, I have often wondered at the lack of effort or willingness among many Americans when confronted with foreign names, especially for languages whose vowel sounds are, to me, easier than the Anglo-American English dialects. I’ve begun to refer to this as “linguistic laziness.”

  3. An amusing example of Americans misprouncing foreign names is Versailles, Missouri. Pronounced “Vur-sails” or thereabouts.
    I don’t think it’s fair to call it “linguistic laziness”, though. It’s unreasonable to expect Americans to know how to pronounce foreign names, especially if they’ve never heard them spoken before. But then again, “Vur-sails” may be pushing it …

  4. The oddest case of this was the very nice wife of a friend of mine whose name was Nathalie. She pronounced her name with a standard American “th”, rhyming with “bath”.
    This kind of adaptation of words to the phonemes and spelling conventions of another language is a constant of philology though, not uniquely American. And in the case of e.g. Estacada here in Oregon, a Spanish-derived name for a town which until recently had always been entirely barren of Spanish-speakers, it really isn’t a Spanish word at all any more.
    One solution is just to generate more and more names — Johan, John, Jan, Jon (pr. Yon), Ian, Jean, Yvon (?), Ivan (?).

  5. aldiboronti says

    I’d take issue with the ‘linguistic laziness’ description too. This is simply the process of Anglicization of foreign names, a process which has its parallel in all languages. I write as a confirmed Don Quicksott man, in spite of the panicked flight from this pronunciation by English-speakers in the last century.
    “Don John of Austria is going to the war” and I’m going with him!

  6. And don’t forget “Don JOO-an,” as in Byron’s poem. I miss the old Anglicized forms we’ve lost in all this modern mania for correctness.
    That having been said, I will immediately contradict myself and say that the American pronunciation of the Irish name Caitlin (kat-LEEN) ‘Catherine’ as KATE-lin drives me up the wall. If you can manage to say Sinead O’Connor’s name more or less correctly, you can pronounce this one too, people!

  7. I love Gudde’s CPN. Check out Pt Molate for another cartographical blunder.

  8. Actually, “America” is the champ map name. Apparently “Amerigo’s map” –> “map of Amerigo” –> “map of America”.
    Amerigo/Emerick/Emery is also the root of my own family name, so America is mine.

  9. “An amusing example of Americans misprouncing foreign names is Versailles, Missouri. Pronounced “Vur-sails” or thereabouts.”
    As are North Versailles Township, South Versailles Township, and Versailles Borough in Alleghany County, Pennsylvania. The pronounciation bothered me the first time I heard it in western PA, and still does after 40 years away from western PA.

  10. If it had the Spanish pronunciation, it wouldn’t sound as good when Bugs Bunny says it.

  11. Cryptic Ned says

    Can any Welsh speakers give their opinions on Nanty Glo (NAN-tee Glow), Pen Argyl (Pen AR-jill), and Bangor (BANG-ger), Pennsylvania?
    Also, non-Pennsylvanians may not know that Latrobe is pronounced Laytrobe, with the second syllable accented. Yes, that’s harder to say, but it’s less Frogophone, which is what matters in Western PA – also home to towns called “Zelienople” and “Coraopolis”.

  12. xiaolongnu says

    Cryptic Ned, it’s interesting that you report Bangor, PA is pronounced “BANG-ger” (I’m assuming you mean that the emphasis is on the first syllable). Where I come from, Bangor, ME is pronounced “Bang-gore” with equal emphasis on both syllables, though the local accent sometimes renders it “Bang-goah” depending on whether you’re from upcountry or Down East. In the latter case the second syllable is sometimes lengthened to two. The pronunciation you describe in your post is likely to get you labeled a flatlander (tourist), or in extreme cases to elicit the response “But I just met ‘er.” Anyhow, when our choir went to Bangor, Wales, the Welsh seemed to pronounce it in the same way that we did (“Bang-gore”), though they might have been humoring us.

  13. Actually, we can be confident that the thousands of Algonquin names in the U.S. are mostly mispronounced.
    OT, but does anyone know about the history of the French on the US frontier? Minnesota was French until the Louisiana Purchase has many genuine French names (Lac Qui Parle, pronounced about right, and Lake L’Homme Dieu Lake, pr. Lake Luhommadoo.) There were also a scattering of French names where I grew up, and I see this all through the West.

  14. Since we’re onto local pronunciations (a topic dear to my heart), let me refer everyone who missed it the first time to my earlier post on the subject.
    My favorite fractured-foreign pronunciations are in New Orleans: BurGUNdy Street, CAL-ee-ope (for Calliope), KAY-diz, &c. For a fuller list, go here and scroll down to “A guide to the pronunciation of local place names” (about 2/3 of the way down). Sample:
    “TULANE – Pronounced TOO-lane. Never, ever pronounce this tu-LANE, or you’ll immediately be mistaken for a college student from New Jersey. Also, you’re liable to have someone get in your face about it…”

  15. When my son was college-hunting Beloit College came up. Buhloit is right, Belwa is wrong. Wisconsin French.
    The college students occasionally get pretentious:

  16. “This kind of adaptation of words to the phonemes and spelling conventions of another language is a constant of philology though, not uniquely American.”
    All right, Zizka, and the rest of y’all, I grant that’s true. There are time, though, that I feel some folk are capable of a little effort toward getting the pronunciations enunciated closer to what “the native speakers” speak. But yeah, I can see that in the past I’ve been something of a Spanish “Nazi.” Forgive me; I’ll lighten up. 🙂

  17. J-P,
    Spanish as “native speak” of America?
    Explain yourself, please – I might misunderstood you

  18. Spanish-speakers were here long before English-speakers.

  19. Where here? In North, not Latin America? Surely you are not considering them “native speakers”? And you are not subscribing to the notion of South-West as “native Spanish territory”?

  20. It’s not a notion, it’s fact. Santa Fe was founded by Spain three hundred years ago (it’s the oldest capital city in the US, and has always been an administrative center), while the Brits were still trying to figure out how to make a go of a swampy little village at Jamestown. The Southwest didn’t become English-speaking for centuries. How can it be considered anything but “native Spanish territory”?

  21. Oh, the horror!
    If I knew I’m immigrating to the former Spanish colony I’d think thrice!

  22. scarabaeus stercus says

    It was the mission to get to Sacramento before the limeys. Sir F Drake, only pick up loot and water.

  23. scarabaeus stercus says

    Re bastard names, why is Cheryl,Meryl, Daryl pronounced, rimes with peril and Beryl with Barral. Is it the Russian influence.

  24. quaelegit says

    Wow, apparently Coalinga, CA (which I’d see signs for as I neared the Bay Area driving north on the 5) is in a completely different place and (from Wikipedia) has a completely different etymology from Coachella. I always thought they were related somehow.

  25. And the name Coachella is unrelated to that of the Cahuilla people of that valley.

  26. Rodger C says

    And neither is related to Coahuila. I hope.

    Regarding Conchilla – Coachella, cf. Heceta Strait – Hecate.

  27. And neither is related to Coahuila. I hope.

    Nor to the Kawia Yokuts of the Kaweah River, some hundreds of miles north, though Cahuilla has been spelled Coahuila and Kawia at various points.

  28. Santa Fe was founded by Spain three hundred years ago (it’s the oldest capital city in the US, and has always been an administrative center)

    Distinguo. Santa Fe (founded 1610) is the oldest capital city that’s still a capital city. But San Agustin / St. Augustine was the capital of Spanish Florida, British Florida, and the U.S. Florida Territory from 1565 to 1824, when the territorial capital was moved to Tallahassee, making it the oldest capital city in the U.S. tout court.

    On the gripping hand, a Tewa-speaking pueblo called Ogapoge existed on the site of Santa Fe’s Central Plaza from the 10C to the 14C, but was abandoned before the Spanish came. Whether that counts as part of the history of Santa Fe is a question. It’s unlikely to have been the capital of anything.

  29. What does it take to qualify as a capital?
    Jamestown was the administrative capital of the Virginia colony from its founding, but it was the sole settlement of the colony, so it doesn’t count?

  30. J.W. Brewer says

    One needs a potentially contentious and narrow-scope definition of “in the US” to beat San Juan, which has been the capital of Puerto Rico since before any of St. Augustine, Santa Fe, and Jamestown were settled.

    Honolulu was not the capital of a united Kingdom of Hawaii until the 19th century, and I’m not sure how good an evidence-based history of pre-Western-contact Oahu we have going back before the Spanish arrival on Puerto Rico, such that we can say where the “capital” (if that’s a coherent concept in context) was located.

  31. Concedo. San Juan FTW.

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