Why October 12 is Not “Colón Day”

I do not know how many of you in Readerland wonder why we say “Christopher Columbus” instead of Cristóbal Colón. But this time the wonderment comes from within this magazine. Our copy editor, Matt Bokor, has decided to flatter me by thinking I might be able to run with this question. OK, Matt — here goes.

Maybe, among the group of Nutmeggers who set out from post-colonial Connecticut to settle what is now the state of Ohio, there was someone who revered Colón. This fellow—let’s call him Fred—thought that this territory should have a capital named after a great navigator. And who was to say that this city wouldn’t also someday have, say, a National Hockey League franchise? No one was willing to take the chance that it wouldn’t. So it needed a respectable handle.

However, Fred’s brother Jed noted that Colón, although an elegant-sounding name in Spanish, was in English depressingly similar to the name of an organ at the south end of the human alimentary canal. It was a place where what we can in mixed company refer to as “coliform” (after the Escherischia coli that make up 70 percent of it) heads for removal from the body. The purpose of the colon is to remove excess moisture from the, uh, coliform.

The other colonists (no pun intended) quickly agreed that this name was therefore unsuitable, since someday a wag journalist might declare that the future capital of Ohio was, uh, a coliformy place. So Fred, Jed and the other settlers on the Scioto river brainstormed for an alternative.

Fred and Jed’s niece, the group’s schoolmarm—let’s call her Louisa—was good at making mnemonic devices. She was the first pedagogue to ever teach in a one-room schoolhouse that “in 1492, Colón sailed the Ocean Blue.” Even so, her uncles sensed there was room for improvement. Both were men of letters, relatively speaking. After finishing fourth grade back in Groton, they got interested in poetry and the classics, and self-educated themselves from some old books.

Louisa’s rhyme, Fred and Jed decided, was off-meter. It needed another syllable. They decided to add -bus to the name, because it was the first part of the Latin word for to look for, and if there was one thing Admiral Colón did better than anything else, it was looking for stuff (if not necessarily finding, as in the case of India). So now it was “Colónbus” who sailed in 1492, and who also had a future state capital chartered in his honor.

Fred and Jed, however, were not in agreement over the admiral’s nationality. If he were indeed Spanish, as Fred thought, then his name was, indeed, Colón. But if he were Italian, as Jed rather felt, then his name would be something more like Colombo. And, according to the admiral’s recently discovered memoirs, there was aboard the Santa María a shipmate named Lieutenant Colombo, who was absent-minded and who incessantly badgered the admiral by objecting, “There’s just one more thing …” This nearly kept the Americas from being discovered. Meanwhile, the debate continued over whether to change Colónbus to Colombo.

After four years, the town had grown big enough to have a stop sign, the better to regulate equine traffic. By this time the colonists, who all wore blue jackets (because they had gone to a blue-jacket clearance at the Hartford Goodwill before migrating westward) decided that they could use neither Colónbus nor Colombo, since neither had the right ring when placed before “Blue Jackets.” This name, it was universally agreed, would be the name of the NHL franchise, in case it ever came into existence (and there was still nobody willing to take the chance that it wouldn’t). And so, Fred and Jed suggested a Latinized compromise: Columbus.

Another problem arose, however, after they erected a statue of Columbus in the town square. Louisa thought that his first name sounded too much like “Crystal Ball.” Since she was a campaigner against divination, she argued that Cristóbal could not be engraved on the pedestal plaque. It suggested that the admiral had consulted familiar spirits in order to make his landfall.

Louisa knew that the Spaniards had introduced uncool stuff like the Inquisition to the Americas. And that they had ethnocentrically abolished certain cool stuff (like human sacrifice) that had existed there previously. But she also recalled that the Spaniards had brought Christ, through the agency of selfless men like Bartolomeo de las Casas. So Louisa suggested changing Cristóbal to Christopher, which means “Christ bearer.”

This caught on, since by the mid 1980s, more baby boys in North America were named Christopher than any other name, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. (Yeah—really!)

Now, someone may write me to say that the foregoing is fanciful. And there is indeed another explanation of how we got from Colón to Columbus. It is that, in 1492, all educated Europeans, from Lisbon to Warsaw, still communicated with each other through the lingua franca of Latin. In the spirit of unity, many great thinkers adopted Latinized names or pseudonyms, a practice lasting nearly to the present. The father of modern taxonomy, for instance, was from Sweden yet he called himself Carolus Linnaeus. And that is how Admiral Colón, as a pledge to this big Latin club, became (according this prosaic explanation) Columbus.

Since my three sons are Guatemalan as well as U.S. nationals, they must learn both names, even though Hallmark has still not figured out a way (as they did for St. Patrick’s Day) to create a frivolous demand for greeting cards on “Columbus Day.”

Readers (and you, too, Matt), there’s little chance of going back. They won’t rename Columbus Day “Colón Day” since people might conclude that enemas are what is being celebrated, and behavior at college frat parties is bad enough as it is. So Fred, Jed and Louisa—or whatever your real names were—we salute you.

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