Bay Nature magazineOctober-December 2010

Book Review: California Place Names: The Origin and Etymology of Current Geographical Names

October 1, 2010

by Erwin G. Gudde (revised by William Bright), UC Press, 2010, 496 pages, $27.50

What’s in a name? Sometimes rich history and intriguing stories. The 40th-anniversary edition of California Place Names animates many local geographic names we take for granted. Like Golden Gate, named Chrysopylae (Greek for golden gate) in 1846 by explorer John C. Fremont, who envisioned its future commercial importance. Or Menlo Park, named after the ranches of two brothers-in-law from Menlough, Ireland, whose arched entrance gate inscribed “Menlo Park” stood from 1854 until a wayward car destroyed it in 1922. Or Contra Costa County, from the Spanish term referring to the “coast opposite” San Francisco. In 1853, that name became less appropriate when most of the county’s coastal section was incorporated into Alameda County.

The book is also a fun companion for trips to other parts of the state. In the late 1800s, residents of Groveland (near Yosemite) chose that peaceful name to replace the original, Garrote, which commemorated a hanging in their town.

Each of the alphabetical listings includes geographic location, pronunciation, and history. Because the book covers the whole state, the entries are necessarily selective and brief, but there is still an impressive amount of California history in this volume–and lots of intriguing leads for further research or places to visit. Like Gudde Ridge, near the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda, named in memory of this book’s author shortly after his death in 1969.

About the Author

Sue Rosenthal is Bay Nature's contributing editor.

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