Make Puerto Rico “Rich” Again

On the blog, I normally zoom in on words that are hogging our headlines. This post, though, I’m stuck on a word—two actually, and a proper noun at that—that have been far too much neglected. I’m talking about Puerto Rico, where millions of Americans are struggling to survive the devastating blow of Hurricane Maria.

Speaking of flags… (Pixabay)

Righting Rico

The origin of Puerto Rico is another one of the cruel ironies, in our current context, of etymology. It means “rich port” in Spanish.

The name of this US territory goes back to that earlier New World colonizer: Christopher Columbus. Apparently, he called the island San Juan Bautista, after the key Christian figure, St. John the Baptist. Hence Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan.

The capital itself lies on a bay on the north side of the island, which Spaniards at some point called Puerto Rico, thanks to the resources it took from there. With the growth of population and industry there, the name of the Puerto Rico bay extended to the entire island. During the 19th century, the U.S. even anglicized it to Porto Rico.

The indigenous Caribbean Taíno peoples called their island Borikén. Their language gives us the word potato—and, in another cruel irony, hurricane.

The Spanish puerto is cousin to the English port, which go back to the Latin portus, “port, harbor, refuge,” also related to words like portal, portable, sport, and transport. It’s anchored in an Proto-Indo-European root, *per-, “to lead, pass over,” which also yields fare and ferry, among so many others.

And it’s not coincidence rico looks like “rich.” Rico, rich, right, rule, rectangle, reckon, reign, regal, royal, direct, erect, reich—these and so many other words are rooted in the Proto-Indo-European *reg-, “to move in a straight line.” This verb, in ancient metaphor, was extended to “rule,” and with ruling comes power and wealth. Or riches. Both these meanings, power and wealth, are found of the Old English rice, parent of rich.

The roots of rich, as we’ve seen, has a way of spreading around. Now, let’s have actual riches—hell, let’s have basic rescue and relief—spread to where it needs to be. And that’s Puerto Rico.

m ∫ r ∫


2 thoughts on “Make Puerto Rico “Rich” Again

  1. The following seemingly cold or clinical remarks should not be taken to mean that I do not feel the pain of the people of Puerto Rico in recent times.

    With regard to your statement “the name of the Puerto Rico bay extended to the entire island. During the 19th century, the U.S. even anglicized it to Porto Rico.” the monophthongal form Porto Rico is a native Spanish coinage going back at least to 1562, the date of publication of a map drawn by the Geographer Royal of Spain at the behest of King Philip II and published by the Spanish government.

    The monophthongal Spanish form is also attested in many later documents written by native speakers of Spanish uninfluenced by English, such as a letter written by the Archbishop of Santo Domingo in 1585.

    For details (including a facsimile reproduction of the relevant part of the map), see:

    Gold, David L. 2012. “The Politicization of a Monophthong: A Refutation of All the Puerto Rican Myths About the Native Spanish Place Name Porto Rico.” In Estudios de Lingüística Española. Homenaje a Manuel Seco. Félix Rodríguez González, ed. Alicante. Publicaciones de la Universidad de Alicante. Pp. 215-268 (with a summary in Spanish).

    Thirty-nine pages of the article may be seen here:

    The earliest known evidence for the English monophthongal form, Porto Rico, which derives from the Spanish monophthongal, is dated 1698, thus, substantially before the United States came into existence. See details there.
    With respect to the reason for the place name Porto Rico ~ Puerto Rico, the one you quote (“The capital itself lies on a bay on the north side of the island, which Spaniards at some point called Puerto Rico, thanks to the resources it took from there”) is the one often given.

    According to a slightly different version of that explanation, it was so called because of the resources the Spanish hoped to find there.

    In 1942, two Puerto Rican historians suggested a different explanation entirely, namely, that Puerto Rico is a folk etymology of the Taino name of the island, Borikén.

    Their suggestion is found here:

    Perea, Juan Augusto, and Salvador Perea. 1942. “Historia de Puerto Rico desde los orígenes hasta nuestros días. Cap. 5.” Revista de Historia de Puerto Rico. Vol. I. No. 2. Pp. 115-180.

    In 1960, Rubén del Rosario suggested refinements in the Perea brothers’ suggestion:

    del Rosario, Rubén. 1960. “Consideraciones sobre le lengua en Puerto Rico.” In the author’s Literatura puertorriqueña, 21 conferencias. San Juan.

    And in a draft that David L. Gold is now circulating of an expanded version of his article, he suggests that since Porto Rico is closer in pronunciation to Borikén than Puerto Rico is, the folk etymology which the Perea brothers suggested and del Rosario refined might likelier have involved the monophthongal Spanish form rather than the diphthongal one (I quote the foregoing with D. L. G.’s permission).

    How the name Porto Rico ~ Puerto Rico arose is still not clear.


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