The Golden State’s name comes from a Spanish romance written in 1510. Las sergas de Esplandian (The Exploits of Esplandian), by Garcia Ordóñez de Montalvo, contains a reference to a fictional island called California.
“…on the right hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very near to the Terrestrial Paradise…”
Since the name was deliberately coined in fiction, we don’t know for sure what roots Ordóñez used to come up with California. It could be from the Spanish califa, caliph. Or he could have combined the Latin calida and forno into a word that roughly meant hot furnace.
Hernando Cortes was the first European to visit the peninsula of Baja California in 1535 and the name was first applied either by him or someone who followed shortly after him. What is now the US state is Alta, or upper, California. The name was appearing in English texts by the 18th century.1
1Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language Unabridged, edited by Philip Babcock Gove (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1993), 316;
Illustrated Dictionary of Place Names: United States and Canada, edited by Kelsie B. Harder (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1976), 75-76.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton