California toponym types and a quiz

I spent the holidays with family in south-central California near Santa Barbara. We took small trips around the Santa Ynez Valley and longer trips to places like Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Pismo Beach.

Below is a Google Maps map of the greater Santa Ynez region. ACME Mapper let’s you view USGS topographic maps, but I don’t think I can embed it in a blog. So here is a link to the Santa Ynez Valley in ACME Mapper’s “topo” layer. The view is zoomed-in to just the area around the towns of Santa Ynez and Solvang. The topo layer’s detail becomes worse as you zoom out. Pan around, zoom in and out.  That’s were we went for the holidays. Here’s the Google Maps map:

The Santa Ynez Valley is centered on the towns of Santa Ynez, Buellton, and Solvang. The Santa Ynez River flows through the valley, westward to Lompoc and the Vandenberg Air Force Base. I don’t think Lompoc is usually considered part of the Santa Ynez Valley—the Santa Rita Hills lie between Buellton and Lompoc—but they are fairly small hills and the Santa Ynez River connects the whole region, so I think of Lompoc as part of the general Santa Ynez region.

Now look at the names of these four towns, Santa Ynez, Buellton, Lompoc, and Solvang. They clearly come from different languages. Santa Ynez is Spanish for Saint Agnes. Buellton is English, or at least the surname of an American settler, Rufus T. Buell, plus the English suffix -ton (“town”). Okay, yes, the surname Buell is probably German. When a place is named after a person it is sometimes be tricky to say definitively what language the place name comes from. Rufus T. Buell was an English-speaking American settler, not German. But in any case it is easy to find place names in California with obviously English origins, like Bakersfield and Hollywood. Lompoc’s name is of indigenous origin, derived from the name of a Chumash Indian village. And Solvang? It’s Danish, of all things, for “sun meadow”. Yes, a bunch of Danes settled there. These four names can represent four types of place names in California. I looked at a lot of maps of the region while visiting and it seemed to me that origin of place names fell into four basic types: Spanish, English, Indian (indigenous), and, well, “oddballs”—a kind of catch-all category for names coming from unexpected languages, like Danish, or otherwise unusual—invented names for example.

There’s plenty of crossover between these categories. Many Spanish names have been Anglicized to some degree. Generic terms like bay, point, mountain, and so on, are commonly rendered in English. So we have Point Conception instead of Punta Concepcion, and  San Rafael Mountains instead of Sierra de San Rafael. I’d still consider these as having Spanish origins. Names that have been completely translated, like the American River, from Rio de Los Americanos, are less clear. I’ll just ignore these.

Here are more examples, then we can play a guessing game.

Names with Spanish origins include Santa Barbara (for Saint Barbara, who was beheaded by her father for being Christian!), Isla Vista, and Los Olivos. George Stewart, in Names on the Land, writes that the Spanish place names of California “fall clearly” into three periods, which the three names I just gave represent. The “deepest of strata” are the genuine names of the Spanish and Mexican era. The second period began with American occupation and continued for more than half a century. During this time “Spanish names were often applied with more enthusiasm than prudence—Spanish words to an English tune. ‘River-view’ was a good idea—so you asked some Mexican the words for river and view, or looked in a dictionary, and arrived obviously at Rio Vista. Any speaker of Spanish would have said Vista del Río, and would have shuddered at Rio Vista, and its numerous brothers and sisters, like Mar Vista and Sierra Vista.” And, of course, Isla Vista, the Santa Barbara neighborhood were the university is located. The third era began about 1915, when the study of Spanish in high school began to be popular in California. Before long, “a realtor trying to put Pinehurst into Spanish as Pino Monte might be informed by a bright son or daughter that Bosque de los Pinos would be more Castilian.” In this third era “the pendulum swung toward an almost pedantic correctness”. My Spanish is no where near good enough to be pedantic, but take a look at the street names of San Clemente, a master planned community incorporated in 1928 and promoted as “a Spanish Village by the Sea”. Two example street names: Avenida De Las Palmeras and Calle De Los Molinos, which mean, I think, Avenue of the Palms and Street of the Mills. But don’t quote me.

Names with English origins are mostly obvious, like Newport Beach, Summerland, Redlands, and Bakersfield. Names whose origin is Indian—or I should say indigenous?—include Lompoc, Ojai, and Nipomo. Many indigenous place names were first written down by Spaniards, so they often look somewhat Spanish—Nojogui Creek, for example. The last of my four categories, “oddball names”, would include Anaheim, being an odd mix of Spanish and German ([Santa] Ana + heim), Cambria, and Rancho Cucamonga.

Alright, so let’s play a guessing game. For each name in the following list of place names in California see if you can guess its origin: Spanish, English, Indian/indigenous, or oddball. The answers are below the maps, so don’t peek! There are nine altogether.


I have a little personal story about this one. Goleta is a small city just west of Santa Barbara. It is where the University of California’s Santa Barbara campus is located, as well as the Santa Barbara Airport. I’ve flown in and out of that cute little airport many times, but had never thought about the city’s name, Goleta. During this trip down there I suddenly realized I knew exactly what the name means. Recently I’ve been slowly learning about the late 18th century Spanish exploration of the Pacific Northwest. One of the last Spanish voyages of exploration to the region took place in 1792, a year after another Spanish voyage discovered the Strait of Georgia. There were two ships in the 1792 Spanish voyage, the Sutil and the Mexicana, under command of Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés y Flores. The two ships were goletas—a Spanish word usually translated as “schooner”. Not long ago I had read a book about the voyage, titled The Voyage of Sutil and Mexicana 1792: The last Spanish exploration of the Northwest Coast of America, by John Kendrick. In the introduction Kendrick explains how the Spanish word goleta is not necessarily the same as the English word schooner. He explains that while a goleta is, “literally”, a schooner, the Spanish term was used for small, usually two-masted seagoing ships “regardless of rig”. There’s the thing. English words for sailing usually depend on the type of sailing and rigging, while Spanish words usually do not. As the Wikipedia article will tell you, a schooner is “characterized by the use of fore-and-aft sails on two or more masts.” Fore-and-aft sails are common on sailboats today, in contrast with the once common but now rather rare square rigged sails. In English it would be incorrect to call a square-rigged ship “schooner”. One or two square sails at the top of a schooner’s masts is alright. That makes the ship a “topsail schooner”. A ”goleta”, however, might be rigged like a schooner—regular or topsail—but might be more fully square rigged. So although the word ”goleta” is usually translated as schooner, other English terms might be more accurate, like brig and brigantine. During the 1792 voyage of Galiano and Valdés, the Sutil was rigged as a brig, while the Mexicana started out rigged as a topsail schooner but was changed along the way to “a brig with an extra fore and aft sail on the foremast”. Thus, in Kendrick’s book, the term goleta is always used, untranslated. Galiano and Valdés sailed their little goletas all the way around Vancouver Island, meeting and working with George Vancouver along the way. Vancouver’s ships were larger and faster, and he took the easier route around, so he arrived at the port of Nootka Sound first and must be credited with first proving that Vancouver Island is, in fact, an island. Galiano and Valdés get at least one “first” honor though: They began and ended their voyage around Vancouver Island at Nootka Sound, while Vancouver began at the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Thus Galiano and Valdés were the first non-indigenous people to circumnavigate Vancouver Island.

I hadn’t been down to Santa Barbara since reading this book. So when we landed at the Santa Barbara Airport in Goleta and at some point the question arose of where the name Goleta comes from, it suddenly dawned on me that I knew quite well where the name came from. I had never thought about it before—Goleta was just one more random name on the map. This time I knew without a doubt it meant “schooner”—but not quite.

As for how the city acquired the name Goleta, according to William Bright’s book 1500 California Place Names: Their Origin and Meaning, “the name was probably given when a ship was either built or stranded here in the early nineteenth century.” On the meaning, Bright simply says that goleta is Spanish for “schooner”.

Bottom line: Spanish.


Well, it looks like it might be Spanish, at least at first glance, doesn’t it? Maybe some Hispanicized Indian name? No, its origin is firmly English. George Stewart describes it in Names on the Land: “Coalinga was a coaling station disguised by the addition of one letter.” William Bright says: “Originally called Coaling Station by the Southern Pacific Railway; the name was then Hispanicized by combining coaling with -a.” I’m not sure I agree that merely adding an -a makes it Hispanicized, but whatever. Interestingly, Bright says the pronunciation is koh-uh-LING-guh, not COH-ling-ay.

I searched a number of other sources and there appears to be some disagreement over whether it is a shortened form of “Coaling Station A” or whether is was just “coaling” plus the letter “a” for whatever reason—”Hispanicization”, as Bright says, or “disguise” as Stewart says. The Wikipedia Coalinga page says the place was originally called “Coaling Station A” and that a railway official “made the name more sonorous” by changing it to Coalinga. The Coalinga Area Chamber of Commerce says: “Legend has it during those days there were three coaling stations; stations A, B and C. The name Coalinga is derived from mixing Coaling with Station A to arrive at the naming of the city.” Hmmm, local legend, eh? The Coalinga Fire Department’s History page says there were three coaling stations on the line, called Coaling Station A, B, and C. After the coal mine closed only Coaling Station A remained active. By 1900, the station was known as Coalina. As for how the new name came to be they are vague: “Some people believe that the name originated by someone in the oil fields having to have an address to receive freight. By this, Coaling A became compiled into one word.”  Hmmm, “some people believe”, eh? David L. Durham says, in his book Durham’s Place Names of Central California, that the place was called Coaling Station and the present name was coined when a railroad official added the letter “a” to the word “coaling”, “according to local tradition”. Nothing about “Coaling Station A” there. But “local tradition”? Hmmm. Another book, The Valley’s Legends & Legacies III, by Catherine Rehart, paints a simple progression from Coaling Station A to Coaling A to Coalinga. She says Coaling Stations B and C were on the spur line to the coal mine, but A was at the junction with the main line. But, is this one of the “legends” mentioned in the book’s title? Historic spots in California, by Mildred Hoover, supports the story of Coaling Stations A, B, and C, with A becoming Coaling A, then just “shortened” to Coalinga. Finally, there is post on the topic at the CPRR Discussion Group blog. It starts off: The usual version is that there was a “Coaling Station A,” “Coaling Station B” and “Coaling Station C,” and that “Coaling Station A” was eventually shortened to “Coalinga.” There are several reasons for me to conclude this scenario is just a myth. The author, John Sweetser, doesn’t provide an alternate theory, but makes what seems to me a decent case for the “Coaling Station A” version being a myth. Nevertheless, the English-origin of the name seems clear, whatever the exact process was.

Alright, alright, enough about Coalinga! I’m sorry, I can’t help but spend too much time looking into these things!

Bottom line: English.


According to Bright, the name for this city was coined from the English word garden in the 1880s. The city’s website says “reports differ as to how Gardena acquired its name”. They mean no one knows for sure who coined the name, but there’s no question about the meaning: it is just garden plus -a.

Bottom line: English.


This is an odd one. In the 1870s a group of settlers from Indiana migrated to southern California and laid out a townsite. At first they called it Indiana Colony. In 1875 they needed a post office and had to submit a name for it. Finding the word “colony” inappropriate they looked for something different. After a number of proposals, such as New Granada, Indianola, and Muscat, were dismissed, they decided to look for an Indian name—ideally one that expressed something “valley” related. Rather than search for a local indigenous name one of the settlers wrote to a friend in Minnesota who was a missionary among the Chippewa Indians (known as the Ojibwe these days). He was asked to translate into Chippewa “key of the valley” or “crown of the valley”. The missionary found the request difficult because the Chippewa did not have locks and keys, nor regal symbols. He did his best though, and wrote back with several suggestions, all rather long, such as tá-pe-ká-e-gun pâ-sâ-de-ná and weo-quân pâ-sâ-de-na, the latter of which supposedly meant “crown of the valley”. All the suggestions ended with the phrase pâ-sâ-de-nâ. The settler who received the missionary’s letter decided to use just the last part, removed the hyphens and accents, and then proposed the name Pasadena in a meeting. Although half of the phrase had been removed it was presented as still meaning “crown of the valley”. The other settlers liked it. Indian-derived names were in fashion at the time, the word was euphonious, and its supposed meaning had promising connotations. By a vote of 17 to 4 the town became Pasadena. Thus Pasadena’s name comes from an Indian language, but one spoken nearly 2,000 miles away. Bright says “the Chippewa prototype is said to be passadina, meaning “there is a valley”. I’m not sure how long it took for people to realize the name did not mean “crown of the valley”. The city’s website says “The word Pasadena literally means “valley” in the Ojibwa (Chippewa) Indian language, but it has been interpreted to mean “Crown of the Valley” and “Key of the Valley,” hence the adoption of both the crown and the key in the official city seal.”

Pasadena City Seal

Bottom line: Indian/indigenous (but “oddball” might be an acceptable answer too).


The City of Oxnard was named around 1900 for Henry T. Oxnard, who had established a beet-sugar refinery there. So it is an English name. The surname is originally from “oxen-herd”, meaning a herder of oxen, according to William Bright. I know, not very exciting.

Bottom line: English.


Yes, I’m afraid it’s true: Tarzana, a district of Los Angeles, was given its name by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan stories. Actually he bought a large parcel of land, built a big house, and called it Tarzana Ranch (Tarzan had apparently made him rich). Later, he subdivided and sold the land for residential development, as did other small farms in the area. In 1927 or 1928, local residents decided to name their town Tarzana in honor of Burroughs and his famous storybook character.

Bottom line: Oddball!

Palomar Mountain

The word palomar is Spanish for “pigeon roost” or “dovecote”. I found that funny enough to warrant including in this quiz. Makes me picture the great Palomar Observatory filled with roosting pigeons, their dropping covering everything inside. Apparently the Spanish word comes from paloma, meaning “pigeon” or “dove”. Turns out the observatory was not given the name because pigeons lived there, nor was the mountain. The mountain was named after Palomar Creek and the Palomar land grant of 1846. Perhaps there were pigeons living along the creek.

Bottom line: Spanish.


This was surprised me. I guess I never considered the origin of the name. According to William Bright, “Malibu” comes from the name of a Chumash Indian village, which the Spanish wrote down as Umalibu. The original Chumash name “may have been” (hu-)mal-iwu, which, Bright says, means “it makes a loud noise all the time over there”. What a great name, if true. Bright says it “refers to the surf”. Oh, right. A California State Parks page about Malibu’s history translates the Chumash name more tersely, “where the surf sounds loudly”. Probably a better translation, but not as fun.

Bottom line: Indian/indigenous.


About Covina, William Bright writes, “the name was apparently adopted simply because of its pleasant sound, with an echo of Spanish viña, meaning vineyard.” This makes it an “oddball name”, I reckon, invented just because it sounded nice. I can’t find anything about the name on the city’s website, but the Wikipedia article on Covina says: The city was founded in 1882 by Joseph Swift Phillips, and tradition has it that it was named by either him, his wife Mrs. Cornelia (Hunt) Phillips, or his surveyor Frederick Eaton, in 1885 when the survey was finished. One of them supposedly noticed the many vineyards nestled in the San Gabriel Valley and devised the portmanteau of “Covina” from “cove of vineyards”. No reference is provided though, which makes me hesitate to accept the story. Perhaps I should slap on a “citiation needed!” tag? Naw, believe it or not, I don’t really care about Wikipedia’s Covina page. But even if Wikipedia’s story is true, Covina is still an invented name.

Bottom line: Oddball!

Okay. That’s it. So how did you do?

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One Comment on “California toponym types and a quiz”

  1. Very entertaining, thanks. I used your info on Pasadena in our group.

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