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.
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 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.