Mark Liberman’s latest Log post sent me back to my 2008 post about the vexed issue of why Southern Californians use the definite article when referring to freeways (e.g., “the 405”), and the remark there that U.S. 101 used to be known as Ventura Boulevard made me wonder about the name Ventura—I’ve driven through there a million times and never thought to ask why it was called that (ventura is Spanish for ‘fortune, chance, happiness’). So I reached for my trusty California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names (one of the best such books ever done, and beautifully printed as well), and discovered that it used to be San Buenaventura; a mission of that name (dedicated to Saint Bonaventure) was founded in 1782, the town that grew up around it was incorporated as the City of San Buenaventura in 1866, and a county was created (from part of Santa Barbara County) in 1872.

The county, however, was given the abbreviated name of Ventura, and the town soon followed suit:

In 1891, on petition of the residents, the Post Office Dept. changed the post office name to Ventura: “Much mail and express matter designed for this office found its way to San Bernardino, and vice versa. Then the name was too long to write and too difficult for strangers to pronounce”… The new name was generally accepted, although the Southern Pacific did not change the name of the station until 1900. In 1905 Z. S. Eldredge wrote the following obituary to the old name in his campaign to restore Spanish names: “And now comes the Post Office Dept., which is the most potent destroyer of all. I have spoken before of the injury done the people of San Buenaventura. They cling to that name and use it among themselves. But they are doomed. Mapmakers, from the Director of the Geological Survey to the publisher of a pocket guide following the lead of the post office, call the place Ventura, and the historic name will be lost (San Francisco Chronicle, Apr. 10, 1905).

And now that I’ve written all that, in the course of googling the last quote I discover I have in fact written about this before (though much more briefly), back in 2003. So consider this a blast from the past, and a warning as to what will become of your memory as you pass gracefully through your fifties.


  1. However, you have now added the key phrase “on petition of the residents”, which takes the change out of the scope of the Eeeevil Post Office and back into the hands of the residents themselves, who evidently didn’t (unsurprisingly) all agree.

  2. Interestingly this sorta parallels the stupid vilification of the EU regulations on the straightness of cucumbers over here.
    It’s been the prime example of bureaucratic overreach by the union-haters for years. Unfortunately for them, the regulations were drawn up on request by the growers. Having centralised standards for curviness made pricing far more transparent across borders and ensured that lots were directly comparable.

  3. Is “directly comparable” supposed to be some kind of novelty ? It has always been the case that a customer directly compares the kilogram price of cucumbers in store A with the price in store B, and the relative firmness of the respective products etc., then decides which to buy, if he buys either. The possibility of “direct comparison” cannot explain why the regulations were requested.
    As you can read in this Stern article from November 2008, and this Deutsche Welle article from 2009, there was one main reason why European growers wanted a regulation restricting the curvature of cucumbers (I’ll explain in a minute why I have put European in bold type). The reason is this: it is easier to pack more cucumbers in a given (EU-standardized !) packing crate if they are straight than if they are bent and twisted. This servers the interests solely of the growers.
    One might think that this would entail a reduction of shipping costs per cucumber (fewer crates per tonnage), and thus of the retail price – well, it might, and it might not. A businessman who can reduce his costs is not going to pass the savings on to his customers automatically – unless he prefers to read The Guardian instead of The Capitalist Facegrinder.
    Another reason for the cucumber regulation is that European consumers have been trained by advertising over the years to equate symmetry, simplicity and uniformity with “goodness” – white flour, drinks that always taste the same, round tomatoes, carrots that have lived a straight and narrow life … So, for a while at least, many consumers were happy in the assurance that no misshapen vegetable was going to undermine their right-thinking, well-regulated lives.
    In 2009 the curvature regulations for cucumbers, leeks and several other kinds of vegetable were finally rescinded. There were many reasons why that happened. One was that people have become fed up with the EU meddling in every single aspect of life. Interestingly enough, once the regulations were no longer in force I discovered belatedly what must have been another reason for their original enactment – a reason that I had never seen mentioned before in articles on this business.
    In the summer of last year, at a small Turkish grocery store around the corner where I usually buy my vegetables, there were several crates of what looked like semi-circular cucumbers, so bent were they. My first idea was that they were some kind of zucchini. But no, they were just cucumbers of a kind that you never see in German supermarkets.
    You need special growing-trusses to get cucumbers to grow straight. The European producers of straight cucumbers have a lot of money invested in these truss factories, especially the Dutch. Non-European producers, as in Turkey and Africa, just let the cucumbers grow and so have smaller production costs. One purpose of the cucumber regulations must have been to keep the non-European, low-cost competition out of the market.

  4. That is, under the pretext that straight = “higher quality”. I refrain from making any tacky jokes here.

  5. Thanks, Grumbly, that was extremely interesting.

  6. Stu, that was fascinating and sad. Be grateful that you don’t live in Japan, where farmers shape watermelons in little boxes to get them to grow square.

  7. Hat, I know we agree that some kind of “basic statistical thinking” should be taught in schools – I don’t mean about black and red balls in urns, but rather (under simpler names) interest rates, insurance premiums, the differences between correlation, causality and expectation etc. Another important subject should be “Cui Bonum”, or “Who stands to profit, who stands to lose, by a proposal”. The finals in that subject will test, for each proposal set, whether the student can identify at least as many losers as winners, giving plausible reasons. You fail this test, you don’t graduate from high school – because you are not ready for life.

  8. There is a proposal to institute a Cui Bonum test as a graduation requirement. Discuss, with particular reference to who stands to win or lose by this proposal.

  9. That tedious song would have been more euphonious had it been “I lost my heart in Yerba Buena…”.

  10. Charles Perry says

    The Southern California town name that always stops me is Mission Viejo. Why not Vieja?
    A lot of politics was played out via the Post Office. In 1910, the Pacific Electric trolley company fired the popular owner of its Glendale-adjacent restaurant Casa Verdugo, but she successfully sued the PE to cease using the Casa Verdugo name & the PE had to rename its place La Ramada. The unincorporated area around the restaurant had taken to calling itself Casa Verdugo so the PE tried pressuring Casa Verdugo local post office to stamp letters “La Ramada” instead.

  11. The Southern California town name that always stops me is Mission Viejo. Why not Vieja?
    It takes its name from a Rancho Mission Viejo (granted 1845); as Gudde says, “If the name is supposed to mean ‘old mission’, then there is a gender error; the correct Spanish would be misión vieja, or better misión antigua. But in Rancho Mission Viejo, Viejo ‘old’ can be interpreted as referring to the masculine noun Rancho.”

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