Colorado Place Names.

My wife and I are reading Wallace Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose at night and enjoying it greatly; at the point we’ve reached, the narrator’s grandmother (whose story he’s telling) has joined her husband at the remote and brutal town of Leadville, Colorado, in 1879, and there is a mention of the nearby Sawatch Range. Naturally, I wanted to know how “Sawatch” was pronounced, so I googled and found that Wikipedia article, which said /səˈwætʃ/. That sounded a little implausible, so I thought I’d check the reference, which was “Merkl, Dameon (February 26, 2013), “What’s in a Colorado name pronunciation?”, The Denver Post” (archived version). I was glad I looked, because that piece is a treasure trove of unexpected pronunciations and has an amazingly descriptive point of view; some excerpts:

In a diversely populated state where place names stem from English, Spanish, French and American Indian origins, it’s hardly surprising that certain geographical pronunciations vary as much as the languages from which they sprang. But which pronunciations are correct? According to the University of Colorado’s Department of Linguistics chair, professor Andrew Cowell, there are two answers to that question.

“If you’re an academic purist, you might want to say that the pronunciation in the original language is correct. But in reality, I think most people realize that if you move to a new state or a new city, and you start saying something the wrong way, people start looking at you funny, and you eventually say it the way everybody else says it, right?”

Take Louisville, for example. “In Colorado, we say ‘lū ĭs vĭl’ for that town near Boulder,” says Cowell. “But if you go to Kentucky, they say ‘lū ē vĭl.’ If you try to say ‘lū ĭs vĭl’ in ‘lū ē vĭl,’ you’re going to get corrected every single time. So I think the existing local usage is really what has to be considered the correct pronunciation.” […]

Like all language, pronunciation is a fluid, evolving enterprise. Sometimes words shorten naturally over time, until the new version just sticks, and other times changes result from the process of folk etymology, when an unfamiliar word is replaced with a familiar one. Such was the case of today’s Purgatoire (pûr ge twär) River, in southeast Colorado. Originally under the Spanish moniker “Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio,” meaning “River of the Lost Souls in Purgatory,” French trappers gave the name its first translation.

“They called it the Purgatoire, which is just ‘purgatory,’ ” says Cowell. “But once settlers came in, most of them didn’t know French, and they decided someone must have been trying to say ‘picket wire.’ So, for a while, it was the Picket Wire River.”

Author, professor and tour guide Tom Noel, commonly known as “Dr. Colorado,” is familiar with the French impact on Colorado nomenclature. “It’s important to point out that the French were here before the Gold Rush. They were trappers from French Canada, in the fur trade, looking for a route down to Santa Fe. We have the Cache la Poudre (kash lə pū dər, commonly referred to as the Poudre), named for where they hid their gun powder in Fort Collins, the Platte and the Purgatoire,” explains Noel.

French pronunciations can be tricky, but the most troublesome word for Noel is slightly less exotic: Arvada (är vŏd ə). “I never get it right,” says Noel with a chuckel. “I always mispronounce it ‘är văd ə’. I’ve been corrected out there at the Arvada Cultural Center. The locals make a big deal out of it.”

“But I think it’s the Ute names that give people the most trouble, like Weminuche (wĕm ĭ nū chē), Cochetopa (kō chĭ tō pə), Saguache (səwäch). I always thought that was the Ute’s revenge, putting names on the land that embarrass people because they can’t pronounce them. It’s not phonetic,” Noel says. […]

Another mountain town whose name has sparked plenty of conversation and debate is Buena Vista (byū nə vĭs tə). “We get a whole bunch of phone calls where I’ll answer the phone and someone will immediately say ‘I won! I won! You owe me $5!’ They listen to how I answer the phone to settle a bet,” says Katherine Perry, assistant director of the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce.

“Back in 1879, Alsina Dearheimer suggested the name at a committee meeting. Her first husband was a language and music professor, so she knew it meant beautiful view, but she just wanted it with an Americanized pronunciation. It was never intended to insult anybody, she just wanted it to be ‘byū,’ as in ‘beautiful,’ ” says Perry, who is also the city’s resident cemetery guide.

Occasionally, however, the pronunciation has ruffled some feathers. “I’ve had people come into the chamber, and they get extremely upset,” Perry says. “They say we are being disrespectful and we should teach our children how to pronounce the name of our town properly, to which I say, ‘It’s our town.’ This is historically how it came down, and if we want to say it that way, it’s our town. Don’t tell us how to pronounce our town. This is our story. It’s documented in the history of Chaffee County.” […]

Phil Goodstein, currently working on his latest tome, tentatively titled “The Denver Index,” has written several books about Mile High history, including “Denver Streets: Names, Numbers, Locations, and Logic.” “I try to steer clear of an orthodoxy on street pronunciations because there’s no real concrete gazetteer of complete consensus,” Goodstein says.

Through his research, Goodstein has found several street-name anomalies. “You have the Acoma (ä kə mə) Indians of New Mexico but it’s ‘əkō mə’ street in Denver,” Goodstein says. “Galapago (găl əpā gō) Street is named for the Galapagos (gəlä pə gəs) Islands. You have the Klamath (klă məth) Indians of the Pacific Northwest, and apparently folks misspelled the word Klamath when they were putting the street signs together, so that’s how you have Kalamath (kă lə măth) Street.”

Goodstein also shares his thoughts on a popular road in LoDo. “He called himself ‘wīn kūp,’” Goodstein says of the street’s namesake, Edward W. Wynkoop, “which is probably the proper Dutch pronunciation. Then his descendants tended to call it ‘wĭn kūp.’ But there was no real consensus and nobody really cared until (Gov.) John Hickenlooper came on the scene. He didn’t want people thinking about wine on his street where he had the brew pub, so he insisted on ‘wĭn kūp’ instead of ‘wīn kūp.’”

Great stuff! But you may have noticed that the pronunciation given for Saguache/Sawatch is (səwäch), which clearly has /a/ (as in hah) and not /æ/ (as in had), for which the article uses ă; some Wikipedia editor misunderstood the source. Having found the correct pronunciation in the very authoritative Merriam-Webster’s Geographical Dictionary, I fixed it, and all is well.


  1. I’ve seen plenty of pronunciations given in Wikipedia that evidently came from a misunderstanding of the phonetic symbols (e.g. using [ʌ] for unstressed vowels in English). I’ve learned to cross-check the pronunciation info in Wikipedia with other sources whenever possible. Fortunately, for place names it’s getting easier to find videos of how locals actually pronounce them. I guess in the past we had to call the places to check.

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    Now I wanna start a grass-roots movement to pronounce “Hickenlooper” differently from the way the ex-governor himself pronounces it. Just to show him.

  3. If it were an old English town it would presumably be pronounced “Hilper.”

  4. That you’ll actually get the same reception if you say ‘Lou-ee-vill in Kentucky because natives pronounce it ‘Lou-uh-vl doesn’t detract much from a fun article. Picket Wire is great.

    My grandmother would say Byu-na Viss-ta for the town in Florida and it would bug me. “Doesn’t she know…?”

  5. Am I correct in thinking that the second word of Paso Robles in California is pronounced like ‘nobles’? I seem to recall hearing that somewhere.

  6. Pueblo, CO, is /pjeblɔʊ/, IIRC.

    I don’t know about Paso Robles, but lots of places in California, like streets called Los Robles, use the “nobles” pronunciation.

  7. Am I correct in thinking that the second word of Paso Robles in California is pronounced like ‘nobles’?

    You are indeed.

  8. David Marjanović says


    You’re putting me on!
    – Eyegore

    Seriously, what is this, Korean!?!

  9. Forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown.

  10. If you listen to interviews with people from the early years of Hollywood (e.g., Mary Pickford), you may notice that “Los Angeles” used to be pronounced with a hard G, but at some point that changed. I think that “Paso Robles” may be undergoing a similar change as more people become familiar with the written name (as a winemaking region, for example) without actually going there to hear how the locals pronounce it.

  11. ktschwarz says

    Wikipedia has disambiguation pages for both spellings Sawatch and Saguache. The first one is in need of the same pronunciation fix, if you’re up for some more housekeeping; the second has already been corrected.

    Both link to the same list of placenames; the pages for the town of Saguache and the county have the right pronunciation, those for Saguache Creek and Sawatch Uplift have the wrong one.

  12. Los Angeles with a hard G was also used by Anjelica Huston in The Grifters (1990). I’m not sure what era it’s set in.

  13. ktschwarz says

    How about the etymology of “Sawatch”? Several of the Wikipedia pages claim: “This name derives from the Ute language noun ‘sawup’ /səˈwʌp/ meaning ‘sand dunes’”, with no reference. The mountains are not dunes, but they’re not all that far from the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Wikipedia’s article on the park says “The traditional Ute phrase for the Great Sand Dunes is Saa waap maa nache (sand that moves)”, referencing the park’s official page. On the other hand, William Bright, generally one of the more reliable sources on Native American placenames, writes in Colorado Place Names:

    From Ute sagwáchi, referring to the color range that includes both green and blue. Some present-day Ute speakers believe the place name refers to green vegetation; others believe it refers to bluish stones or earth.

    And the USGS page for Saguache Creek says: “‘Saguache’ is a Ute word meaning ‘water at the blue earth’” (though I’m not sure how much that counts, since they’re geologists, not linguists).

    The first Europeans to record Saguache as a placename were presumably Spanish, with later Anglo settlers sometimes re-spelling it and sometimes not. I didn’t immediately find any information on whether the mountains were named for the creek or vice versa, either by the Ute or by Europeans.

    There’s an online Ute-English Dictionary with audio clips; the word sagwagar(ü) ‘blue, green’ is pronounced by two speakers.

  14. I checked Givón’s Ute Reference Grammar. The verbal root for ‘blue/green’ is saghwa- [saʁwa]. saghwa-chi̱ [saʁwat͡ʃi̥] is the deverbal noun, ‘greenery’ (=Saguache). saghwa-gha-ru̵̱ [saʁwaʁaɾɯ̥] is the inanimate deverbal adjective ‘blue/green’.

  15. @Y: The Grifters has to be set around the time it was released, or perhaps slightly earlier, because the (fake) computer scam run by Annette Bening’s character wouldn’t make sense too much earlier. The cars in the film are also clearly 1980s.

  16. “I always thought that was the Ute’s revenge, putting names on the land that embarrass people because they can’t pronounce them. It’s not phonetic.”

    Oh now what is this on, those examples are no particular challenge to pronounce as given.

    1) First and fundamentally, the Ute are not in any way responsible for whether you later wrote their names phonetically or otherwise in your own alphabet.

    2) But also, those pronunciations are what I’d expect from the spelling. [ETA: ok English/Spanish aside.]

    3) And as given they’re perfectly vanilla English phonotactics too. We don’t even have the thing like where people who say word-medial /-mb-/ all day will insist that word-initial /mb-/ is downright impossible.

  17. For what it is worth, here is the account of the name Saguache in Frank Hall (1895) History of the State of Colorado, vol. 4, p. 305 (available here):

    According to information received from Mr. Lawrence, one of the oldest settlers in the San Luis valley, the name “Saguache” is an Indian word, spelled, as near as it can be translated, thus: Sa-gua-gua-chi-pa, signifying “blue earth,” or rather the water at the blue earth, and referred to certain large springs in which blue earth was found, situated at or near the upper crossing of the Saguache river, some twenty miles above the town of Saguache. Since this place, as well as all the valley bearing the name, was one of the most beautiful for Ute Indian encampments in both summer and winter, it became the resort of traders and trappers from New Mexico, and as they could not or would not pronounce the long and difficult Indian name, they abridged it to the more pronounceable “Saguache,” and thus it has stood to the present time.

    The Mr. Lawrence referred to is apparently this this fellow (p. 263ff). If we take the form given by Hall at face value, would the breakdown be as follows?


  18. This account of Saguache reminds me typologically of the name of the Blue Earth River of southern Minnesota, a translation of a Dakota name meaning ‘river where one gathers blue earth’ (blue clay for paint, and perhaps treatment of wounds?). This name is given as Makato osa watapa here (the transcription uses John Walker’s numeral diacritics explained here). (Perhaps this is to be interpreted makhá thó wóšpi wakpá, ‘earth’ ‘blue/green’ ‘gather’(?) ‘river’? Or is the last element watóphe ‘paddle a canoe, travel by boat’?) More details of early European visits to the river here (p. 85f). The name of the city of Mankato is also said to be an alteration of Dakota makhá thó ‘blue earth’.

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    Bugs Bunny uses a hard-G pronunciation for “Los Angeles” in this classic Bugs usually had a vaguely stage-Brooklyn accent unless something not particularly consistent with that would be funny for the given moment, in which case it was flexible.

  20. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    In England there are many traps for the unwary. We usually think of the suffix -ham in a place name like Birmingham as a shibboleth for Americans, who pronounce it /’hæm/ (stressed) instead of /əm/ (unstressed). However, Stokenham is a village in Devon, not far from where I once lived, for which the “American” pronunciation is the right one: /stoʊkənˈhæm/

  21. adding to Ryan’s point:

    the two louisvillians i’ve known best (both born in the late 1970s) differ in their pronunciation of the city’s name, in a way that i think is some kind of local s(h)ibboleth that i don’t quite understand: one puts a fairly distinct /l/ before the /v/, the other doesn’t.

  22. Keith Ivey says

    Athel, on the other hand, Durham has /əm/ even in North Carolina.

  23. David Marjanović says

    puts a fairly distinct /l/ before the /v/

    Like the bananals in Bristol?

  24. to my ear, at least, it’s a similar flavor of intrusive L.

    i’ve never noticed it turning up in other words my one friend uses, but i don’t think he’s typical (his parents are anglo-canadian (a burr, no less) and croatian from a muslim & (german) jewish background).

  25. Rodger C says

    rozele, what you’re hearing is what’s usually called the “Louavull” pronunciation. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s /l/-coloring in a word that begins and ends with /l/.

  26. John Cowan says
  27. “Currently, the biggest borehole in the world is 12,262 meters or 40,230 feet and is called the Kola Superdeep Borehole. This hole, which was made between 1970 and 1979, is located in Oblast, Russia.”

    Is this something like “County, Pennsylvania”?

  28. Nathalie says

    It is a great book, but it’s important that the writer of those incredible letters (and the use of the phrase “angle of repose” as a metaphor) get credit for them:

  29. David Marjanović says


  30. Thanks for that, Nathalie!

  31. John Cowan says

    Gale and I tried several of Stegner’s books and disliked them all including AoR, so we gave up. Maybe I should give the journal a try. (Alas and dammit, there is no Kindle or Nook edition, and Bookfinder lists it at $29 used. Oh well.)

    At any rate, the article is wrong to say the unpublished journal was not under copyright in 1971 when AoR was published. There was no federal copyright in unpublished works at the time, but there was a perpetual copyright in them at common law, established in the U.S. by the Supremes in Wheaton v. Peters (1834), until abolished by the Copyright Act of 1976. So Stegner knew damned well what he was doing when he claimed he had permission to do what he wanted to with the journal. If he didn’t have that blanket permission, he and his publishers were wide open to a copyright-infringement lawsuit.

    Cf. angle of incidence.

  32. John Cowan says

    It occurred to me to wonder what Le Guin, who thought of herself as a Western writer, thought of Stegner. And sure enough (from Conversations on Writing, a posthumously published series of interviews with David Naimon on KBOO, a public radio station in Portland, Oregon):

    “Mary Foote was a novelist and short story writer of no particular literary distinction but some popularity. She wrote some very good stories. Fairly well-known in her own time, which was basically two generations before Wallace Stegner’s. She wrote a very fine autobiography which was not published during her lifetime. […] Stegner was given a copy of this book and some of Foote’s letters by her grandchildren. He took it and built his novel Angle of Repose on it, on her book, her life story. […] And the only credit he gave to Mary Hallock Foote was to thank her grandchildren for the “loan” of their grandmother. He didn’t even name her.

    I hold this as unforgiveable. I cannot forgive Wallace Stegner, who was very well known, very popular, very much adored by the intelligentsia, who easily could afford to give credit where credit was due. And he didn’t. I do not forgive.”

  33. Meh. It’s a fine novel, whatever the author’s sins. And “much adored by the intelligentsia” sounds like there’s some unexamined class/cultural resentment there.

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    Le Guin grew up as the daughter of a UC-Berkeley professor and herself earned degrees from Radcliffe and Columbia. So if she’s dissing the “intelligentsia” it’s not really from a proletarian/outsider position … More of an insider-keenly-aware-of-her-own-tribe’s-faults position (at least if you think her criticism is valid, which I am not taking a position on)?

  35. John Cowan says

    I would be slow to call any of UKL’s published opinions (she wrote very little non-fiction) “unexamined”. And I think you miss the mark: the wider context shows that the resentment is about the past and continuing devaluation of women writers by the (mostly Eastern, mostly male) literary establishment. She has other examples, which I won’t rehearse here.

  36. Her criticism of unacknowledged use of someone else’s writing is valid; her wild extrapolation to “unforgiveable” (adding, in case we missed the point, “I do not forgive”) is absurd and makes me think less of her, unless there’s something else going on. I know a woman who refuses to forgive Bob Dylan or listen to his music, but he did something horrible to her father, and I have no problem with her reaction. If Stegner did something to Le Guin personally, she should have said so. Otherwise, she’s posturing in a ridiculous way.

  37. And I think you miss the mark: the wider context shows that the resentment is about the past and continuing devaluation of women writers by the (mostly Eastern, mostly male) literary establishment. She has other examples, which I won’t rehearse here.

    I totally agree about the devaluation of women writers, but that’s irrelevant to the artistic achievement of any given writer. And to limit it to “the (mostly Eastern, mostly male) literary establishment” is (again) absurd — women are and have always been devalued across the board. If she was under the impression that Westerners and/or non-establishment folks (the plain people of Ireland, so to speak) valued and supported women in general and woman writers in particular, she was deluding herself.

  38. J.W. Brewer says

    To the extent that that Le Guin’s criticism might be thought to carry an implicature (she does not make the explicit point about sexism out loud in the quote) that a Stegner-like figure would not have ripped off w/o more explicit acknowledgement an unpublished old MS by a deceased male author of Foote’s generation, that strikes me as naive. The primary original context of “immature artists borrow, mature artists steal” (extant in various wordings and attributed to various Famous Dead People) was a cultural world where both the appropriators and the appropriatees were typically white males.

  39. I totally agree. I respect Le Guin’s feminism, of course, but like any other -ism it can lead to faulty judgments if not kept on a leash.

  40. ktschwarz says

    eub: “the Ute are not in any way responsible for whether you later wrote their names phonetically”

    Agreed, the tour guide’s line about “the Ute’s revenge” is the kind of cheesy, lame laugh line that tour guides keep handy to juice up their lectures. The newspaper article would have been better off without it.

    But I don’t think the tour guide meant that the names weren’t perfectly vanilla English phonotactics (which they are, because they’re not actual Ute words but anglicizations); he meant that their pronunciation isn’t predictable from the spelling. The letter e is pronounced three different ways in Weminuche and Cochetopa, and not pronounced at all in Saguache — how would you predict that? Of course, that’s all on the English alphabet, and on English-speakers using Spanish spellings, as you say.

    To his credit, the Denver Post writer continues from there:

    But if the spellings of places like Saguache don’t seem to match their pronunciations, that is no fault of the Utes, according to Alden Naranjo, spokesman for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Cultural Preservation Department.

    “The Utes don’t have an alphabet. The way the immigrants heard it, the way you hear it, is how they spelled it,” says Naranjo. “The the word is ‘sə wŭp;’ it means ‘sand dunes.’ But the immigrants couldn’t pronounce it, so they called it ‘sə wäch.’ ”

    Aha, there’s the source for the “sand dunes” etymology in Wikipedia. Unfortunately, given the source provided by Xerîb above, and by William Bright, I think it’s probably wrong; Naranjo was probably passing along an eggcorn, in good faith — all languages produce eggcorns! — or confusing this name with the name of the Great Sand Dunes. It’s hard to believe that [səwʌp] (which is already pronounceable in English!) would be heard as /səˈwɑːtʃ/, much more likely that [saʁwat͡ʃi̥] (or some related word) would.

  41. ktschwarz says

    Xerîb, thanks for the 1895 book reference on Saguache. That is clearly the point of origin of the translation “water at the blue earth”, repeated by many later writers, and it’s an important reminder that placenames as we know them are often truncated.

    According to the book you link about John Lawrence: “When the county was formed the Indians were numerous within its bounds, but they seldom gave the settlers any trouble. In 1880 a treaty was made with them and Mr. Lawrence served as interpreter in making it.” If he had enough knowledge of the Ute language for that, that gives his translation more weight.

    But to get any better idea of whether to believe it, we’d need early Spanish sources to confirm whether the name was first applied to the springs and only later the mountains, and some confirmation that there is blue earth there. (I had no luck finding either of those.)

  42. William Bright’s Colorado Place Names is disappointingly short on detailed toponymic history, unlike Gudde and Bright’s California volume. Nevertheless, it does say of Saguache, “Some present-day Ute speakers believe the place name refers to green vegetation; others believe it refers to blue stones or earth.”

    My best guess about “Sa-gua-gua-chi-pa” is that one -gua- is superfluous. Per Givón, N-N compounds are head-final (the opposite of N-Adj phrases), and páa ‘water’ is one of a few nouns which does not carry an absolutive suffix in Ute, so saghwa-chi̱ páa, referring to a river associated with a green or a blue terrain, seems OK. Blue earth or rocks seem more distinctive than “greenery”, but that’s just a guess.

  43. ktschwarz says

    That’s the same quote from Bright’s Colorado Place Names that I posted above. Odd that Bright only mentions the name as applying to the town, the county, and the mountain range, but not the creek or springs. Was he aware of “Sa-gua-gua-chi-pa”? Did he leave it out because he didn’t know about it, or thought it was invalid, or just for space reasons? Considering that the Utes had been forcibly dislocated from Saguache County a hundred years earlier, it’s conceivable that some of Bright’s sources, while recognizing the word for ‘green/blue’, had lost the cultural memory of specifically which place it referred to and why, and were guessing with “green vegetation”.

    Uto-Aztecan cognates of páa ‘water’ previously at Pogonip.

  44. John Cowan says

    If Stegner did something to Le Guin personally, she should have said so.

    If I may say so without offense (and I know that this is generally a prelude to something offensive), I have noted that you (act as if you) recognize no legitimate source of offense except personal offense. “If it doesn’t burn your country ass, leave it to those who are burned!” This strikes me as a lack of solidarity; I think it’s meant as a correction for rampant tribalism, but really, if everyone except B is supposed to keep silent when A does an injustice to B, what justice can B ever get?

    I think it is also related to your insistence that “the dead have no rights”. If Nabokov was totally at the mercy of Dmitri over the disposition of his literary property, why shouldn’t whoever is in physical possession of a dead person’s papers be allowed to burn them, publish them, or use them to insulate a root cellar or check erosion in a gully in his sole discretion? And if the papers, why not anything else?

    And to limit it to “the (mostly Eastern, mostly male) literary establishment” is (again) absurd — women are and have always been devalued across the board.

    I see no evidence that it is a limitation.

    “George bullied me at school today.”

    “Well, what of that? Everyone bullies you at school every day. Why pick on poor George?”

  45. If I may say so without offense (and I know that this is generally a prelude to something offensive), I have noted that you (act as if you) recognize no legitimate source of offense except personal offense.

    You have misunderstood my point, which has nothing to do with legitimacy. I deprecate in the strongest terms any and all attempts to subordinate artistic considerations to political ones (with “political” taken in the widest possible sense), and such subordination is not only commonplace but these days pretty much de rigueur in “progressive” circles. Once we start down the path of rejecting authors because of crimethink, we end up having nothing to read. It’s perfectly in order to say “I wish Stegner hadn’t taken her writing without attribution,” just as it’s perfectly in order to say “I wish Dostoevsky hadn’t been an antisemite” (a far worse offense, if you ask me), but to take the further step of rejecting the work because of the author’s sins is to be a philistine whose opinions on art are not worth paying attention to (not to mention implicitly claiming perfection of one’s own soul — “Let he who is without sin,” etc.).

    I mentioned the Dylan example not because I think it’s fine and dandy to reject his work because he was an asshole, but because taking personal things to heart is part of being human; it is clearly (to me) much harder to set aside the burning coal of an offense to one’s family than to partition off sociopolitical considerations in general. In a similar way, I deprecate the idea of “defending one’s country” while approving of defending your actual personal family and friends. That sort of thing doesn’t, or shouldn’t, scale.

    Also, personal offense is inherently a limited problem; if the tiny percentage of humanity who have been personally offended by Bob Dylan (granted, a higher percentage than with most artists) refuse to listen to him, no harm is done except to their range of aesthetic experience (and after all, such experience is necessarily limited). Sociopolitical offense, which requires no personal experience and is infinitely extensible, is a huge and growing problem that can result in a wide variety of bad things, including violence. To my mind, there is no comparison between the two.

  46. David Marjanović says

    “Let he who is without sin,”

    The hypercorrectivism is spreading!

  47. I read the article about Angle of Repose that Nathalie linked to above, and I thought it was pretty damning. It’s not just that Stegner ‘borrowed’ another person’s story but that he straight-up lifted pieces of Mary Foote’s writing, including the title of the novel itself. Whether that’s Unforgiveable I don’t know, but I certainly classify it as Very Bad.

    Then again, like JC, I have read a couple of Stegner’s novels and came away unimpressed (why, I can’t remember; it was a long time ago).

  48. Yes, of course it’s bad; that’s why I’m talking about the importance of art rather than dismissing the complaint. You have made it clear that you disapprove of stealing someone else’s writing; well and good, I think it’s safe to say we all do. You have not said whether you think this has, or should have, anything to do with the value of Stegner’s writing, which is the point at issue. (You say you came away unimpressed from reading him, but that is of course a different matter.)

  49. No offense to those who think differently about these matters, of course; I have strong feelings and (as always) express myself strongly.

  50. Hmm. I enjoyed reading Angle of Repose decades ago.


    >There it was, page 33: “And then Augusta dawned on my nineteenth year…sweet and cold from her walk up from the ferry” (ellipsis Stegner’s). The passage carries on for an entire page—with negligible alteration. I’d assumed Stegner had come up with that elegant, time-specific metaphor—the bitterness of salt and the beauty of roses in making potpourri—but clearly it was Foote’s.

    I mean, if a writer refashions an old plot, no worries. But taking plot, title and large amounts of the prose, including page-length extracts? Of course it affects my judgment of “Stegner’s writing” to discover he wasn’t sole author, instead inhabiting a weird middle space between writer and editor, but without acknowledging the creative writer who did the real work.

    And I too am wary of the politicization of art and art criticism. But the act of politics here would seem to be to take an existing real-life story arc and bend it into a story of a woman betraying her man and thereby letting her daughter die, and then allowing critics everywhere to describe it as a paradigmatic story of the American West. The iconography of patriarchy was a significant part of Stegner’s contribution to their “shared” artistic project. To the degree it’s “his” work, that is a big part of what we have to pass judgment on.

    I’m taken with the juxtaposition of Hall’s father’s “he was my friend” with the idea that Le Guin would need a direct personal relationship with Foote to defend her work against Stegner’s vast plagiarism of plot, title, characters and prose. Given the case, I can understand his defense of his friend. They were friends, and it’s tough to let go.

  51. I have a sliding scale, I suppose. If someone steals/copies/plagiarizes another person’s work and produces out of it something of genius, then I am inclined to be more forgiving than if they create something so-so. That’s probably not a justifiable position, according to any consistent moral philosophy, but there you go.

  52. I mean, if a writer refashions an old plot, no worries. But taking plot, title and large amounts of the prose, including page-length extracts? Of course it affects my judgment of “Stegner’s writing” to discover he wasn’t sole author, instead inhabiting a weird middle space between writer and editor, but without acknowledging the creative writer who did the real work.

    Fair enough. I guess I too have a sliding scale; the longer and more frequent the stolen passages, the more my opinion of the thief will sour. But “the creative writer who did the real work” implies that all that is best in Stegner’s novel came straight from Foote, which I would need to see documentation of — not having read Foote, I can’t make a judgment on it, but I’ve read Stegner’s stories, which are excellent, so my presumption is in his favor. He was a fine writer, whatever his sins in this regard.

  53. What bothered me in the Le Guin quote was not her being pissed off at Stegner, which is totally understandable, but the general air of “Fuck him, why should anybody pay attention to that bastard,” which set off all my WARNING: SANCTIMONY alarms.

  54. I get how the sanctimony feels like too much. And recognize I may have been overstating in saying “did the real work.”

    But on the other hand, given the amount of plagiarism I’ve already seen and Stegner’s efforts to cover it up, it seems like the burden should be on Stegner’s defenders (academic and published, not every friendly reader) to prove that he really did the more significant act of creation. The article was enough to make me wonder, and to give Foote the benefit of the doubt.

    I suspect that doing that reconciliation, totting up his contributions and those of Foote, would be as dispiriting to anyone who came as a defender of Stegner as it was to Hall, who at least says that she approached this defensive of Stegner and his legacy.

  55. I suspect you’re right.

  56. John Cowan says

    Well, I won’t write yet another long screed, because many of you have made most of my points, for which my thanks. Just a few left:

    1) Le Guin is on record as agreeing with you that judgments on the work and on the creator of it are separate matters (the context of that passage is about Le Guin being cured of the desire to meet authors.) I’ve made the point (repeatedly, as usual) that art comes from the total personality of the artist and not merely from the artist’s ego.

    2) In this passage, Le Guin has nil to say about the merits or otherwise of AoR: she is not saying “Stegner bad, so AoR bad” or even the weaker “Stegner bad, AoR bad too”. Indeed, if you plagiarize a good book, you may yourself produce a good book (while remaining a scuzzball.)

    3) As to Stegner vs. the Big D: Although believing in the legitimacy of plagiarism is not as bad as antisemitism considered as opinions, Stegner but not Dostoyevsky went further and acted on his opinions. He actually plagiarized Foote, whereas Dostoyevsky joined no mobs and didn’t even incite any.

    For what it’s worth, this blog post says that about 10% of the text of AOR was plagiarized. I wouldn’t call that “vast”, but I do think it is too substantial to ignore. Similarities and dissimilarities in plot don’t trouble me: it’s legitimate for a fiction writer to tell lies about real people, especially the dead ones (writers of historical fiction do it all the time).

  57. I wouldn’t call that “vast”, but I do think it is too substantial to ignore.

    I have to agree.

  58. J.W. Brewer says

    Because the old Foote writings were not previously published, they were still under common-law copyright as the law stood in the U.S. back then, so whoever controlled those rights (probably likely to be some overlap with the grandkids who gave Stegner access) could have sued Stegner (or, more to the point, his publisher) if the use was as substantial as alleged. Apparently they didn’t? Could be because they were not well-advised, could be because they didn’t actually get offended the way Le Guin (and others) did by the usage and the lack of more extensive attribution, could be they were paid off quietly. Wikipedia claims that they gave him access under false pretenses because he misled them as to what he would or wouldn’t do with them, which if true again would have been a good basis for a claim against him and his publisher. And if you’d told the publisher you weren’t really looking for a lot of money or getting the book pulled from the market, but primarily wanted a note in subsequent printings setting forth in agreed language the debt of the text to Foote, a lot of publishers would jump at the chance for a settlement like that.

  59. John Cowan says

    Could be because they were not well-advised

    That’s my guess: it would have to occur to them to talk to a lawyer, and it would have to be the right kind of lawyer. IP lawyers probably aren’t thick on the ground in Grass Valley, California.

    he misled them as to what he would or wouldn’t do with them

    Indeed he did, per Hall’s article. When Stegner received the Foote letters, he wrote back saying: “Since it would involve no recognizable characterizations and no quotations direct from the letters I assume this sort of book [as AOR] is more or less open to me.” In the same letter he requests the journal and gets it. He acknowledges the receipt, says he’s going to try to “work it into something”. And that’s the last the Foote descendants hear from him for a long time.

    Then when Foote’s journal is being prepared for publication, Stegner writes back saying he’s still alive and working on his book, but he is “slow as a sinful conscience” (a striking simile in the circumstances), and that he looks forward to the publication. Then he asks whether he has to fictionalize the elements he used further and whether the Foote descendants want to read the MS. We don’t have the reply, but it’s clear that they do not read the MS. And then AOR is published, and the journal is published a year later.

  60. J.W. Brewer says

    Well, they might not have talked to a lawyer before the book was published, but they could have done so afterwards (at least if they moved reasonably promptly) had the as-published book irked them as much as it subsequently irked some other people. A lawsuit at that point could actually have had more leverage if done the right way. But is there any record as to whether they were, in fact, upset versus other people ultimately being upset on their grandmother’s behalf? Did they even read the as-published book?

    I would note more broadly that “plagiarism” is not some inherent sin or crime obvious to all: rather it reflects the violation of specific conventions of a specific subculture (which may be different between e.g. academia and journalism, and within academia may be different for students and faculty etc., within “journalism” may be different for different genres of piece) and it is frequently the case that outsiders to the relevant subculture don’t have the same intuitions and in the case of a particular controversy don’t see what the big deal is (and/or don’t understand why the insiders think a particular situation is actually okay and not a big deal).

    FWIW I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Stegner and have no opinion positive or negative of him as a writer. He was prominent and critically acclaimed during a historical period when I do not take either of those factors as particular guarantees of aesthetic quality, although I don’t necessarily consider them affirmatively contrary indicators … He won his Pulitzer before they publicly announced the runner-up finalists, so I can’t even say if I’ve read whatever books the judges that year thought inferior to his.

  61. ktschwarz says

    JWB, did you follow the link given by Nathalie that started all this? According to that article the feelings of Foote’s descendants were very much hurt, one of them “commandeering the attention of anyone who visited [the museum] with the story of the vast disservice done to his great-grandparents”. But no indication in the article that they thought there could be any legal recourse.

    “A note in subsequent printings setting forth in agreed language the debt of the text to Foote” is what the publisher should do anyway (should have done long since), in my opinion. Might as well make it an enhanced package with critical essays and such, while they’re at it.

  62. John Cowan says

    But is there any record as to whether they were, in fact, upset

    The Hall article says so, yes. But it may have been the details of the fictionalization that upset them rather than the plagiarism: the Hall article isn’t clear on that.

    what the publisher should do anyway (should have done long since), in my opinion

    That was done in the introduction to the 2000 edition.

  63. ktschwarz says

    That 2000 introduction (by Jackson Benson, Stegner’s biographer) is where the 10% figure comes from: Benson did the totting up, “61 pages in a book of 555 pages”. But, as I guess might be expected from a biographer, it’s partisan, crediting Stegner for bringing “more attention to Mary Hallock Foote than she would ever have received otherwise” and rubbing salt in the wound (it seems to me) by blaming the family for not anticipating that Stegner would fictionalize Foote in unflattering ways. Benson really does not do Stegner any favors by describing the response as “angry denunciation by feminists … Some of the charges grew out of misunderstanding and miscommunication; some, out of spite and, no doubt, jealousy.” Those feminists, so shrill, we all know what they’re like.

    The question of “if the Foote family were really so offended, why didn’t they sue then, huh, huh? Are they just being used as props by the wokerati?” is directly addressed in a long article linked from Wikipedia in the LA Times from 2003 (when more of the family were still alive to be interviewed):

    Why didn’t Foote’s family take any action? “We’re non-litigious,” says Gardiner. “We’re academicians. But I know that plagiarism is a crime with a victim.”

    … Foote’s granddaughter … told Hall they simply didn’t know how to take on someone of Stegner’s stature.

    As to whether it was the fictionalization that upset them or the plagiarism, apparently that differed between different relatives, which (per Benson) led to conflict between them; no wonder the bitterness lingered.

    Stegner realized that the family wouldn’t want readers to take the character for the real person, which is why he didn’t put Foote’s name in his author’s note, so it’s not so simple to condemn him for that (as Le Guin does). But when the secret came out, he reversed course and took credit for bringing attention to Foote!

    … to be frank, she did not strike me as important enough historically to make her more than modestly interesting–a talented woman on the frontier. By converting her to fiction I at least had the chance to make her immortal.

    Sheesh. Art is not the artist and all, but this is the part that bothers *me*: he couldn’t build himself up without tearing her down?

    Should be needless to say, none of this makes the novel bad in itself, it’s all questions of reception and context.

  64. I agree with all of that. Too bad he couldn’t have been less defensive and more generous!

    Incidentally, there’s a surprisingly close parallel in Kaverin’s Перед зеркалом [Before the mirror], which I reviewed here; he used the letters of a female artist, Lidia Nikanorova, for his epistolary novel, and was similarly accused of plagiarism. (Again, I find the result worth it — it’s a wonderful novel.)

  65. J.W. Brewer says

    Let me clarify some earlier comments that may have been ambiguous. There are all sorts of good reasons for people not to bring a plausibly meritorious lawsuit, even when they are emotionally irked about the situation. Not being emotionally irked about the situation (and not having “hard” out of pocket monetary damages in the way you would if Stegner’s negligence had wrecked your pickup truck so now you need to get a new truck …) is one plausible reason to refrain from suing, but it’s not symmetric — not suing doesn’t create that much of an affirmative inference that you weren’t subjectively upset.

    But let’s change the facts hypothetically. Assume that an edition of Foote’s journal and relevant letters had been published by some small-time California publisher in a very small press run circa 1911 and fallen into obscurity. Stegner finds a dusty copy in a library that no one has opened for decades. The copyright has expired. He can make whatever the heck use he wants of it without exposure to any claim of copyright infringement. If he makes the same use of the source texts that he did in the real world but got his access to those texts more honorably, is he engaged in “plagiarism”? Keeping in mind that this is not an academic publication but a novel with a historical setting, is that sort of unattributed use of public-domain historical source materials (a good way to add “period authenticity” to the prose …) really violative of the widely-to-universally-accepted norms and customs of the middlebrow-historical-fiction profession? I would be at least mildly surprised if that was the case.

    That Stegner may have acted shabbily or deceptively in the way in which in the actual world he got access to the source texts is its own issue, of course. I’m just trying to figure out how much the charge of “plagiarism” depends on the ultimate use made of the source materials versus the way in which access to them was obtained.

  66. David Marjanović says

    If he makes the same use of the source texts that he did in the real world but got his access to those texts more honorably, is he engaged in “plagiarism”?

    I would say yes, because he’s still making himself look more brilliant than he actually was. What I don’t know is if that would matter in the real world. In academe it matters because that’s often the difference between employment and unemployment, or between tenure and precariat.

  67. Plagiarism and copyright are unconnected. Copying material from another author and passing it off as your own is still plagiarism, even if the material is in the public domain. It’s not a legal offense, but that’s not the issue.

    Have I mentioned the wonderful sonnet I composed a while back? It begins “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

  68. Was Pierre Menard a plagiarist?

  69. The way I composed the sonnet I mentioned earlier was by spending a year reading all I could find relating to Shakespeare and his time, excluding the published works, and reading nothing of a later vintage. One day, miraculously, while contemplating a former girlfriend, those marvelous words popped into my head…

    There was an article in the New Yorker some years back, by Malcolm Gladwell IIRC, arguing that while copying another author’s text directly is a Bad Thing, stealing their ideas and rephrasing them is both more common and Much Worse.

  70. J.W. Brewer says

    But what does “passing it off as your own” mean in context? What is it reasonable for a reader (or a publisher, or a Pulitzer-type jury) to expect the creative process did or didn’t involve? Does a novel come with an implicit guarantee that the novelist has followed some sort of pseudo-academic Honor Code and written every sentence from scratch himself? Does a novel come with an implicit guarantee that every phrase or sentence that’s not explicitly footnoted or explicitly attributed to another source is “original,” for some promethean/romantic sense of originality? I don’t think that’s how the sausage is necessarily actually made. When writing “authentic-sounding” dialogue, is it unprofessional practice for novelists to put into the mouth of a character a striking phrase that they overheard some uncredited and uncompensated stranger say in a bar or on the street?

  71. J.W. Brewer says

    Pierre Menard reminds me of what may fairly be called one of the more Borgesian sentences in a reported U.S. federal court decision: “If by some magic a man who had never known it were to compose anew Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn, he would be an author, and, if he copyrighted it, others might not copy that poem, though they might of course copy Keats’s.” (Thus the Hon. Learned Hand, in 1936.)

  72. I don’t think there’s a bright line definition. To some extent, it’s a matter of scale. Overhearing a cute phrase and giving it to a character in a novel is perfectly fine. But reproducing large chunks of text from another source, without credit or any indication to the reader that that’s what you’ve done, is a no-no, IMO.

    When you sign a book contract there’s a clause saying, in suitably legal language, that what you are providing is substantially original work except where otherwise indicated. Besides that, any reader has a tacit expectation that a novel is a work composed by the author, not cut-and-pasted from somewhere else.

    ETA: The magically gifted author Learned Hand imagines would presumably have to convince a court that he really did come up with the Ode all by himself, and that would be a hard sell, I would think.

  73. David Marjanović says

    one of the more Borgesian sentences in a reported U.S. federal court decision

    Also remarkable for using might in its, uh, morphologically literal sense as “would be allowed to”, rather than as “would perhaps”.

  74. J.W. Brewer says

    @David M.: I don’t have a good sense of how unusual it would have been for an 1872-born educated American writing in a fairly formal register to use that archaic-feeling-to-21st-century-ears sense of “might.” It might (as it were) have been an idiosyncrasy of Hand’s or it might have been unremarkable for his cohort. Wiktionary illustrates that sense with a quotation from Frazer’s The Golden Bough. Frazer (Scottish rather than American) had been born in 1854.

    @David L.: Depending on the circumstances, a court might well decide it would be simpler just to have the alleged infringer prove that he/she/it had copied Keats’s poem rather than the identically-worded “new one,” thus rendering it unnecessary to decide whether the new one really was an original new composition.

  75. John Cowan says

    stealing their ideas and rephrasing them is both more common and Much Worse

    This may make sense for fiction (although I think it’s wrong) but clearly it’s nonsense for non-fiction, or all history books would be Very Bad Things.

    Overhearing a cute phrase and giving it to a character in a novel is perfectly fine

    Indeed, many Jules Feiffer cartoons have a caption “Guarantee: all dialogue verbatim.” Obviously the unknown speakers can hardly claim they have been plagiarized, even though there is, strictly speaking, no attribution.


    I agree that the preterite-of-may sense is archaic in a main clause, as in Frazer’s example “The king and queen of Tahiti might not touch the ground.” But in a sequence-of-tenses construction, like Wikt’s synthetic example “He asked me if he might go to the party”, it seems toadally cromulent to me. Granted, people are nowadays more likely to ask “Can I go?” than “May I go?”, which would trigger could, but I think that is a separate matter.

  76. This may make sense for fiction (although I think it’s wrong) but clearly it’s nonsense for non-fiction, or all history books would be Very Bad Things.

    Not at all. Let’s say I write an academic history book with a novel interpretation of, I dunno, Robert Hooke’s role in the conception of gravitational theory, supported by deep research into obscure letters and documents. Then someone else comes along and writes a more accessible account of the same idea, with no reference to my original work but without any direct plagiarism. That’s the kind of thing Gladwell was talking about, and it would definitely be Very Bad.

  77. J.W. Brewer says

    @David L.: In an academic context, I think heavily drawing on your novel interpretation w/o attribution would be “plagiarism” or something very close to it even if you had paraphrased enough that no statistically-improbable sequences of words were reproduced verbatim, because the relevant academic norms are about crediting sources of facts/ideas/argument-structures as well as attributing verbatim copying of specific wording choices that ought to be within quotation marks. But the norms for a sufficiently popularizing book aimed at a non-academic audience but drawing on academic sources (but not expected by readers as a matter of genre to include footnotes/endnotes and/or a bibliography) may be different. Certainly an illustrated book about gravity aimed at an elementary school audience could maybe stress the potential importance of Hooke with some generic intro like “Some researchers think” w/o giving your name and not be out of compliance with relevant local norms.

    Fun fact: I was just, in connection with my day job, reading a New York state appellate court decision from the 1970’s in which Dr. A claimed that he had first discovered that you could use drug X to treat problem Y but that Dr. B, who was alleged by A to have had no role in this research, had falsely taken credit for A’s discovery and won some $10,000 prize for having supposedly done so. Held: A can sue B (and try to get the $10K) on an unjust enrichment theory.

  78. Fun fact: One of the plot points in the Stegner novel is the narrator’s grandfather’s discovery of a method of producing cement which is stolen by others, who make a bundle. (No, he doesn’t sue, he’s not that kind of guy.)

  79. Wow! Guilty conscience passive aggressive much?

  80. David Marjanović says

    I don’t have a good sense of how unusual it would have been for an 1872-born educated American writing in a fairly formal register to use that archaic-feeling-to-21st-century-ears sense of “might.”

    Neither do I, of course; I just hadn’t seen it before. (At least not often enough to remember.)

    Wow! Guilty conscience passive aggressive much?

    Or a complete lack of conscience: “he didn’t sue, but the people I plagiarized are suing me – SO UNFAIR!”

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