I received a message recently from a 12MC reader in Cañon City, Colorado. I couldn’t help noticing the tilde, the little squiggle over the letter "ñ." That of course was punctuation used in Spanish, not English, so it caught my attention. Very few places in the United States included diacritical marks recognized officially by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Most of those disappeared at least a century ago as the Board worked to Anglicize, standardize and expunge foreign-appearing names.
Nonetheless I checked the Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) and it included a number of places with the "Cañ-" prefix, often in Puerto Rico as one might expect along with many others in southwestern states that were once part of México, and before that part of Spain. I discovered various other appearances of the tilde-n and placed a representative sample of the more significant towns onto a simple map.
View Officially Tilde in a larger map
The Spanish caña derived from Latin, canna, meaning cane or reed. Water would flow through a hollow cane much like water would carve deep narrow slots through rock. Thus a Cañon could be thought of as a big cane, which seemed appropriate as I thought about it awhile. Eventually English-speaking people came to the area and we ended up with a bunch of canyons instead of cañones. Only a few place names retained or later reverted back to the older form including settlements like Cañon City.
Many different sites traced the official loss of Cañon City’s tilde to a 1906 Board decision and its reversal in 1994. I looked through a few sources to confirm the claims. The tilde existed in 1879 as the predominant usage, along with Canon City less frequently. The 1906 Decision referenced by various publications noted bluntly, "Canyon city and RR station Fremont county Colo Not Cañon City." Later the 1994 Decision did indeed include the tilde.
Doña Ana County Line by Jimmy Emerson, DVM, on Flickr
via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Doña Ana also came to mind as I pondered the tilde. Doña Ana became a New Mexico county in 1852. Doña was a term of respect reserved for the lady of the house, from the Latin domus (house). Doña Ana would be something like Mrs. Anna in English. That led me to wonder about this particular Doña named Ana, and what she must have done to merit a county named in her honor.
Nobody knew for certain although she appeared to be a figure from the 17th Century when the territory belonged to Spain. Most sources including a New Mexico Historical Marker identified her as Doña Ana Robledo, a particularly generous and charitable woman of the time. The Place Names of New Mexico offered a competing albeit somewhat more pedestrian and probably more realistic theory; "…a more likely eponymn was one Doña Ana María de Córdoba, whose ranch was located here."
The tilde disappeared and reappeared from Doña Ana, too. I consulted several maps from the latter part of the 19th Century. Sometimes they used the tilde and sometimes they did not. The reappearance continued even recently. The US Census Bureau had to add the tilde for the 2010 Census, as an example.
A Few Others
Other place names included:
- Española, New Mexico (feminine form of español, a female Spaniard)
- Peñasco, New Mexico (large elevated rock, e.g., rocky point)
- Rancho Peñasquitos, California (little rocks; little cliffs)
- Cañones, New Mexico (more than one Cañon)
- La Cañada Flintridge, California (more like a glen or ravine than a Cañon)
I did my best with those translations. Any Spanish-speaking readers should feel free to offer clarifications and corrections. The tilde made a big difference in that last usage too. Drop the diacritical mark and it would be Canada, a completely different etymology for a completely different location.
La Cañada Canada would be a great name for a Mexican restaurant in Toronto, though.