“Sequoia”: a giant-sized controversy

Earlier this week, heavy storms and flooding toppled the famous Pioneer Cabin Tree, a giant sequoia whose trunk cars once drove through, in California’s Calaveras Big Trees State Park. Before it was carved out in the 1880s to attract tourists, a forest fire had already hollowed out part of its trunk, apparently resembling a log cabin, hence the nickname Pioneer Cabin Tree. But why do we call this kind of tree a sequoia?

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The Pioneer Cabin Tree, also known as the Tunnel Tree, in 2006. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American originals

In 1847, Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher, while reorganizing and reclassifying plant species at the University of Vienna, created a new genus, which he called Sequoia. Endlicher’s Sequoia originally referred to redwoods, a close cousin to what we now know as and call the giant sequoia, or Sequoiadendron giganteum.

The common and long-running explanation is that Endlicher chose Sequoia to honor Sequoyah (1770-1843), a Tuskegee-born Cherokee silversmith who invented the Cherokee syllabary, which allowed for reading and writing in his native Cherokee tongue. Put simplistically, a syllabary uses written symbols to represent all the different syllables in a language, whereas an alphabet uses symbols to stand for all of the individual sounds. In Cherokee, for instance, Sequoyah wrote his name ᏎᏉᏯ, each symbol standing in for the syllables making up his name: Se-quo-ya. Sequoyah’s name comes from the Cherokee, Sikwayi, whose meaning and origin is unknown.

Sequoyah’s invention is a truly impressive, rare, and consequential feat, but author Gary Lowe thinks this etymology is quite the tall tale. Endlicher doesn’t mention Sequoyah anywhere in his papers and notes, but he was a philologist, including publishing a linguistic text on Chinese. Lowe ultimately roots the Sequoyah origin to an anonymous submission of an article in an 1856 edition of the agricultural magazine, The Country Gentleman. The author associates the name Sequoia with Sequoyah, for whom he concludes, approvingly, the giant tree was named. Subsequent writers and editors took up, and spread, this association, assuming Endlicher intended the name on the basis of his linguistic reputation. And so the explanation stuck.

One after the other

Lowe thinks Endlicher actually named Sequoia after the Latin verb sequor, to follow, source of words like sequence. Two other botanists, in fact, looked to the same sequor in the late 19th-century. The first suggested Endlicher picked Sequoia because the name followed in sequence after its original genus name, Taxodium; the second because redwoods followed after its extinct forbears. Lowe, rather, concludes Endlicher supplied Sequoia because the number of seeds its cones produce completes a larger sequence relative to those in its scientific suborder. 

Among giants

As far as the record is concerned, Europeans first encountered coast redwoods in 1769 – and the giant sequoia not until 1833. In the 1850s, British botanist John Lindley dubbed these trees Wellingtonia giganteum, honoring the Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, famed for his defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. “This sat poorly with the Americas,” as Doug Harper at the Online Etymology Dictionary diplomatically sums it up, though Wellingtonia persists in British English. French botanist Joseph Decaisne reclassified the tree under Endlicher’s Sequoia in 1854, and it wasn’t until 1939 that the American botanist John Bucholz determined giant sequoias were a distinct genus from the coast redwood. Bucholz nodded to Endlicher with his new name, Sequoiadendron giganteum. (Dendron comes from the Greek for “tree,” giganteum from the Greek for “giant.”)

Names aside, there is no controversy when it comes to the majesty of sequoias, reaching hundreds of feet in the air and spanning thousands of year in age. Perhaps we can honor the likes of Pioneer Cabin Tree more directly, more immediately, more simply, and look to a name the great American naturalist John Muir once used for the sequoia: Big Tree.

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Behind the name of the next US president: “Hillary” or “Donald”

…and then there were two: Hillary and Donald. A week after Donald Trump accepted his party’s nomination for president, Hillary accepted hers, the first woman to be nominated by a major political party in US history. 

Running up to the big day in November, we’ll be hearing  a lot of these two names. So, what sort of etymological qualifications do Hillary and Donald bring to the White House?

Hillary

The name Hillary broke its own glass ceiling, onomastically speaking: It was originally a male name. According to Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names, Hillary comes from a medieval form of the Late Latin masculine name, Hilarius.

The Latin Hilarius means “cheerful.” It was formed from hilaris and taken from the Greek hilaros (ἱλαρός), also meaning “cheerful.” Greek’s hilaros is related to hilaos, “gracious” or “kindly.”

There may be a yet deeper root for these Latin and Greek descriptors, if we look to Proto-Indo-European: *sel-, which the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots defines as “of good mood” and “to favor.” This root yields solace and silly, which originally meant “happy” and “prosperous.”

The name Hillary spread thanks to a 4th-century Gallo-Roman theologian, now saint, Hilarius of Poitiers. English observers honor St. Hilarius’ feast day on January 13, when one can celebrate Hilary-mass to usher in Hilary-tide. The timing of this feast was also used to mark court and academic sessions, hence Hilary term, at Oxford and Dublin.

By the late 19th century, Hillary became more popular  (and since exclusively so) for females. The double L spelling is a North Americanism.

Hilarius is a short way from hilarious, but this adjective is actually a late formation in the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary attributes it to Sir Walter Scott in 1823, when it meant, like its Latin and Greek forebears, “cheerful.” It soon characterized a “boisterous joy,” extended to and settling on “extremely funny” by 1925.

Donald

Sometimes with affection, sometimes with ridicule, and often with irony, Donald Trump often goes just by his first name: The Donald. Like his mother (and one of his golf courses), the name Donald hails from Scotland.

Donald is an Anglicized form of the Scottish Gaelic Domhnall. (The mh is pronounced more like a V. Domhnall also has its cousins across the Celtic languages.) Oxford’s Dictionary of First Names notes that the English spelling Donald was a misinterpretation of the original Gaelic and influenced by Germanic names that end with a D, like Ronald.

The Gaelic Domhnall literally means “world ruler.” Philologists think the ancient Celtic form was *dub-no-walos. This joins *dubno-, “world,” from an Indo-European root meaning “deep,” like the earth or ground, hence “world.” *Walos is anchored in *wal-, “to be strong,” seen in Latin-derived words like valor and value.

In the Middle Ages, many Scottish kings took the name Donald, as did St. Donald of Ogilvy, near Angus today. Clan Donald, also MacDonald (“son of Donald”), remains a major clan in the Scottish Highlands. 

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The origins of Hillary and Donald are fitting in their own ways, aren’t they? Many want a wonkish Hillary Clinton to be more “cheerful,” a complaint others see as tinctured with sexism. As for Donald? Well, many can imagine he might just start taking down his buildings’ “Trump” signs to display some Celtic etymology instead.

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Orlando

Orlando: The name of this central Florida city, even as it mourns, now stands as a symbol of American resilience and resolve against hate and terror. And the origin of its name, if we look to its deeper etymology, only underscores its strength.

The City Beautiful, the city lore 

Orlando was first known as Jernigan, after Aaron Jernigan, a white man who settled in this Seminole territory in 1843. By 1857, the town changed its name to Orlando following the demise of its original namesake’s reputation.

In Orlando, Florida: A Brief History, James Clark relates several tales explaining why Orlando took this new name. Three are particularly popular.

First, it is said the town honors Orlando Reeves, who died in a fight against the Seminoles by Lake Eola, which sits near the city’s center. There is no record, though, of this legendary Reeves. There is, however, an Orlando Rees, who is subject of a second tale. Rees ran a sugar plantation outside the city but headed into modern-day Orlando after the Seminoles were said to have burned down his home. Lore likely folded these two tales together.

A third story looks to one of literature’s most famous Orlandos: Shakespeare’s As You Like It. (In this pastoral comedy, Orlando flees into the forest from his murderous brother, whose life he later saves, and wins his true love Rosalind’s hand in marriage.) According to this account, the area reminded early resident and Shakespeare admirer, Judge James Speer, of the magical French forest in the play.

“Famous” legends, literature, and lands 

We don’t know for certain how the city Orlando got its name, but we do know how the name Orlando did. According to the Oxford Dictionary of First Names, Orlando is the Italian form of Roland. This name reaches back to another figure of legend, literature, and lore: the Frankish hero and nephew of Charlemagne, Roland, celebrated for his bravery, if rashness, on the battlefield and loyal friendship to Oliver. He is remembered in the medieval epic poem, La Chanson de Roland, considered one of the earliest and founding works of French literature.

Another Roland is remembered in the tale of Childe Rowland, who ventured to the Dark Tower to rescue his sister. Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Stephen king also famously riffed on the folk story to various lengths.

Roland is a Frankish name. Frankish was a West Germanic language once spoken by the Franks in their extensive territories in first-millennial Europe. The tribe lends its name to a surprising range of modern words, as previously discussed on this blog.

Further deriving from Old High German, the name Roland literally means “(having) a famous land.” It joins hrōd, “fame,” and land, “land” or “territory.” We’ve seen the Germanic hrōd in other names: Roger, “famous spear,” and Robert, “bright in fame.” It’s also in Roderick, “famous rule,” and Rudolph, “fame-wolf.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots suggests a Proto-Indo-European base of *kar-, “to praise loudly” or “extol.”

Whether named for an historic Orlando or Shakespeare’s Orlando, the name of the city remembers how it has survived past conflicts (complicated as some of those conflicts may have been). And the name will continue living up to its deeper roots in Roland – truly a “famous land” deserving of our extolment, especially its gay and Latin-American community, a living testament to the power of pride in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting ever witnessed on American soil.

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