Origins of the name of California : LUSENET : San Francisco History : One Thread


I've been searching for the origins of the name of California. But I didn't find any anwser that convinces me. I have my onw theory. Let me tell you and please, tell me what do you all think about it:

1- "Fornia". In spanish, "Oven" is "Horno". But we changed initial "F" from latin words into "H" so in Latin or old Spanish, "Horno" (Oven) would be "Forno". 2- The suffix "ia" means "Land of". This way, in Spanish "France" is "Francia". Italy "Italia". Germany "Alemania", etc, "Fornia" would mean "Oven land" or "Hot land". 3- In Spanish the prefix "Cali" means "hot" so "Caliente" = Hot, "Calido = warm" 4- With all this information I dare to say that "Cali-Fornia" means something like "Hot Oven Land" or something like that meaning that it is a hot land.

Thanks a lot

Fernando, Madrid, Spain

-- Fernando Perez (, August 10, 2003


Actually, the name comes from a 16th century novel about a magical kingdom ruled by a race of warrior women, whose leader was named Queen Califia. Here's an excerpt for the 1998 book "1500 California Place Names" by William Bright:

"The name was applied first to what is now called Baja California, around 1562, and later extended to Alta California, the present state of California. The term originally referred to a mythical land of Amazons, ruled by the beautiful black queen Calafia, as described in a Spanish novel, Las sergas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandian), by Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo."

Hope this is useful,

John Martini

-- John Martini (, August 10, 2003.

Yes, I had heard that theory. I've been searching a little more and I've found a web in Spanish: ( where it talks about that theory. Also it says it could come from the French book "La Chanson de Roland" were it is first called "Califerne" and finally I've found a theory close to mine, saying that Hernan Cortés, the discoverer of the land, called it "Calida Fornax", "Hot Oven". Too many theories...


-- Fernando Pérez (, August 10, 2003.

Maybe because it was a good place for cultivating oranges, In spain one kind of oranges is called "CALIFORNIAS"

-- Jose Vicente Sanchez (, September 26, 2003.

Well, I think the oranges took the name from California, not the opposite. Don't you think so?

-- Fernando Perez (, November 10, 2003.

I agree with Mr. Martini. California was named after a 19th century novel. In the novel California was an island inhabitated by amazon- like women who rode griffins. I think they were griffins. well, they rode some kind of gigantic bird...

-- Anne Mariano (, October 11, 2004.

The answer by John Martini is the most accurate. The novel of which he speaks was published in 1510.

Actually, the region that is today California was known by a variety of names in the early days. The best sources are 16th century maps.

The earliest maps depicting the California region appeared in the 1500’s, only a few decades after Columbus discovered America. The Solinus map of Asia in 1539, for example, depicts what might well be California and calls it “Terra Incognita”, the unknown land. It is fun to speculate that cartouches of trees appearing on this map might well be a depiction of the fabled redwood trees of California.

Later maps referrred to the region by such names as “Quivira” , “Anion” and “New Albion”.

By the mid-16th century, beginning with the Ramusio-Gastaldi map of the Western Hemisphere in 1556, the Sierra Nevada mountain range appears on maps of the region. By the 1590’s maps devoted to California make their appearance and the name California appears in the title of a map.

It is interesting to note that many modern map scholars follow the lead of an early researcher named Wagner, who claimed that the name “Sierra Nevada” on 16th century maps did not refer to the interior mountains we know by that name today, but rather to the Santa Cruz Mountains of the Coast Range. Wagner based his claim on the concept that explorers at such an early date could not have reached the interior mountains. However, his conclusions are patently ridiculous.

The name “Sierra Nevada” in Spanish means “snowy range”. And, while the early European explorers, such as Coronado, may not have penetrated to the interior of California, they undoubtedly saw the distant snow-capped peaks of the Sierras from the coast.

By no stretch of the imagination would such explorers, who were familiar with the great Alps of Europe, have ever referred to the Santa Cruz Mountains as the “snowy range”. Rarely, a thin layer of snow can fall on the uppermost peaks of the Coast Range, but such covering melts quickly when exposed to sunlight.

-- Eldon Grupp (, November 16, 2004.

The references to "Exploits of Esplandian" are the correct. For a detailed discussion of the origins of the name, including a reference to the "oven" theory, refer to the article in the Journal of San Diego History, January 1965-- it is on line at

This should clarify the issue. Dr. William A. Myers, Professor of History, Cal State University, Fullerton

-- Dr. William A. Myers (, January 24, 2005.

No answer - perhaps a further question. My schoolteacher wife's third-grade textbook refers to an imaginary island of gold called Califia and claims it is the origin. I say there's no reasonable basis for that. California is not an island, nor was it believed to be one, and no one knew there was gold there. My research of Califia refers to a mystery island where dolphins pursued prurient interests, also to deviant artwork depicting the dolphins. Not exactly an area we want third graders to explore.

Has anyone else run into this claim of origin?

-- Gene Paschal (, February 03, 2005.

I think I've answered my own question. John Martini was right. Calafia, subsequently Califia, was the black Amazon queen ruling an island kingdom. Their spears had tips of gold - it all fits the mindset of the conquistadors searching for legendary sources of gold. The mystery island Califia and its horny dolphins is coincidental, a red herring (red dolphin?) thrown in my path.

Interestingly, there is a Disney film "Golden Dreams" about the origin and history of California, starring Whoopi Goldberg as Calafia. The Disney exhibit depicts Calafia standing beside the bear.

-- Gene Paschal (, February 03, 2005.

The conquistadors were mainly Castillians who had spend decades fighting the Moors in Spain before coming to the new world. Calif is the Arabic word for 'successor to Mohammed' which became their word for 'king'.

Perhaps it means 'land of kings to be conquered'

-- Nunya Bidness (, February 13, 2005.

I have seen a copy of an early Spanish map at the Oakland Museum of California. Tt shows that at first the Spanish-perhaps from shipboard-thought that California was not attached to the continent and that it was an island. Sailing further northward they found that it was not an island.

-- rosemarie garman (, March 06, 2005.

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