Mispronouncing History

El Dorado. The city of gold. Like so many other explorers, we came close but just missed it.

The name actually translates as "the golden one." According to early Spanish writings, it came from a ritual among a South American Indian tribe where a chief covered in gold dust made offerings of gold objects to the gods.

This got the wealth-seeking Spanish conquistadores all excited, of course, and eventually "el dorado" came to be associated with any lost or rumored place of fabulous wealth. The Spanish never quite found it in South America, which didn't stop Coronado from trekking across a good portion of the American Southwest after it. He made it to central Kansas without finding any cities of gold.

Too bad he didn't have a chance to stop at his local AAA office and pick up a map, because there it was, plain as day. El Dorado, right there on Highways 54 and 77. Even with the map, though, we didn't quite reach it. We just saw the sign as we breezed past at 65 miles an hour, traveling in luxury Coronado could scarcely have imagined.

Of course, Coronado did have the disadvantage of being consistently misled by local people who kept telling him the city of gold was just a little farther down the road. They were smart enough to encourage the demanding and militant Spaniards to move along and become somebody else's problem.

In a way, the locals are still misleading travelers. Not with any inhospitable intent, I'm sure. But we might have had trouble finding El Dorado had we relied on the waitress in Wichita who mentioned it. According to her, it was "El Do-RAY-do."

This regional pronunciation shouldn't really have come as a surprise. The previous day we had breakfasted in Beatrice, Nebraska, which everyone in the state knows is "Be-AH-trice" rather than the conventional "BEE-a-tris" or the pretentious Italianate "Bey-a-TRAY-chay."

Later in our trip we encountered Chickasha, Oklahoma, which an unaware northern traveler might assume to be pronounced "Chick-a-shaw," had she not been informed by someone more familiar with the region that it was "Chick-a-shay." Come to think of it, given the spelling, that makes more sense anyway.

We also spent a day in Lamesa, Texas, presumably named for the "mesa" or flat tableland on which it's located. Nevertheless, it's pronounced "La-mee-sa" with fine disregard for the original Spanish that would have it "La-may-sa."

In the end, the joke was on Coronado, who trekked across this country without ever knowing that it was indeed full of gold. It was just black gold rather than yellow, the kind that's now being taken out of the ground by hundreds of pump jacks.

It is interesting to speculate on how history may have been different had the Spanish made it far enough north to discover gold in the Black Hills. If they had, the capitol of South Dakota might be pronounced "Cor-a-nay-do" instead of "Peer."

Categories: Travel, Words for Nerds | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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