Placentia is Not a Flat Cake

The trouble with words that look almost alike is that they can mean completely different things. Case in point, I noticed a 12MC website hit from a visitor in Placentia, a town in Newfoundland & Labrador, in Canada. I seemed to recall somewhere in the recesses of my mind that there was also a Placentia in California too. That was all it took for me wonder about the derivation of Placentia. My immediate thought focused on a very similar word, placenta, even though they’re pronounced a bit differently (Placentia would sound something akin to placentsha I think). Nonetheless, maybe they had a common root, perhaps a familial aspect of motherhood or nurturing that was applied to towns named similarly.

Umm… no.

The two words have completely different etymologies. Placenta, the organ so vital to the health and survival of a fetus, descended from Greek and Latin and referred to a flat cake. That was both completely unexpected and a whole lot more graphic than I’d imagined. It makes sense, I’ll concede. It’s quite descriptive. However, some things can’t be unseen and I’m not sure I’ll be able to put that mental genie back in the bottle. Let me put those thoughts aside as best I can and focus on the other word.

Placentia (with an i-a) is a purely Latin word and means pleasant, and it’s related to a verb meaning to please. By implication, a town named Placentia would be proclaiming itself as a pleasant place to live.

One might imagine a Placentia would exist in Italy given its Latin derivation, and yes that’s true to a degree. The Latin Placentia became the Italian Piacenza, and provided a name both to a province in northern Italy as well as to its capital city. Piacenza traced all the way back to Roman times historically. It’s also sister cities with Plasencia in Spain (map) and the California Placentia. I’m detecting a pattern here.

Nonetheless, Placentia in California doesn’t seem to have a connection to Piacenza other than a common name. There weren’t colonies of Italians migrating to Orange County and founding Latin-inspired towns, or at least not this one. Rather, according to the Placentia history:

The school district’s original name was the Cajon School District. In 1878, at the suggestion of Sarah Jane McFadden, the name was changed to the Placentia School District… The city name came from that change.

Bear in mind that Latin was a foundational element of a classical educational curriculum during that period. It made complete sense for a school district and a town to retain a Latin name. It would resonate clearly with scholarly and well-to-do elites of the Nineteenth Century, and perhaps attract them as residents.

Placentia, NL, via Wikimedia Commons, in the Public Domain

I suppose I should take a quick look at the Placentia that started me on this journey too, the town in Canada (map). It didn’t have a direct connection to its Italian sound-alike either according to its history.

In 1662, France had established the first permanent colony in what they called “Plaisance” or “the pleasant place”. In 1713, the English had won ownership, launching an era of booming trade and transportation.

Before that though, Basque fishermen came to the area seasonally and may have applied the name to the body of water now known as Placentia Bay. Thus the name of the town would have derived from the name of the bay. Placentia Bay was also the site of the first meeting between Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill a few months before the United States entered the Second World War. The two met aboard a ship, the U.S.S. Augusta, and it resulted in the Atlantic Charter that "publicly affirmed the sense of solidarity between the U.S. and Great Britain against Axis aggression"

2 Replies to “Placentia is Not a Flat Cake”

  1. Before that though, Basque fishermen came to the area seasonally and may have applied the name to the body of water now known as Placentia Bay.

    It is a bit odd that Basques would have used a Latin-derived name. A pity, too, as “Atsegina Bay” has a nice ring to it.

  2. Thank you for writing this and completing the research. I’m an archaeologist in California working on a project with an address on Placentia Avenue, and I erroneously assumed that it was related to placenta. Then when the City of Placentia website stated that it was related to a Latin word that meant pleasant place to live, I thought someone had encountered an incorrect translation or urban legend.

    As your FAQ states, an esoteric search for Placentia latin led me to your website and now I know better. Thanks again!

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