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Monday, October 10, 2011

District of WHAT?

In the United States of America, today is a holiday, "Columbus Day."

It's a day when many people sleep late, drink too much, eat pizza, watch or march in parades, and shop for Christmas gifts in honor of an Italian man who used Spanish money to find a western route to India, and instead bumped into the western hemisphere and eventually increased awareness of the west by Europeans who eventually dominated the Americas.

Chris (a.k.a. "Cristoforo Colombo" in Italian and "Cristóbal Colón" in Spanish) made four transatlantic crossings, but never reached India. He first set foot on an island in the Bahamas -- not in Columbia, Mayland or Columbus Ohio or even Columbus Circle in Manhattan or Colombia in South America.

Despite what many children are taught in school, Christopher Columbus did not "discover" America in 1492. Other Europeans (Vikings in the 11th century) were in North America before Chris. Many thousands of years earlier, Asians apparently migrated from what is now Siberia to what is now Alaska, and gradually moved south and evolved into the "Indians" who were encountered by Chris and his crew.

Many places, Columbia University, CBS (originally the Columbia Broadcasting System), spacecraft and boats and ships were named to honor Columbus.

Columbus named the island he landed on "San Salvador" (Saint Savior), not Columbus or Colombo. The local folks called it "Guanahani." Today, it is not known exactly which island he landed on first, but an Island in the Bahamas is called both San Salvador and Watling Island.

When what is now the USA was being formed, some folks favored naming the new country after Columbus, and if they dominated the debate we could be living in the United States of Columbus.

Instead, we got the A-word, to honor another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who explored what is now South America in several voyages between 1499 and 1502. He traveled on ships financed by Portugal, and Brazil became a Portuguese colony.

Although Amerigo never reached North America, he did provide the name for the U.S. of A. I have no idea why German map maker Martin Waldseemüller named the western hemisphere "America" instead of "Vespucci" in 1507. If Waldseemüller preferred Amerigo's last name, we could be living in the United States of Vespucci. If the mapmaker had more ego, we could be living in the United States of Waldseemüller.

After our new nation got its new name, it needed a name for its capital city. This, too, was the subject of debate, and we ended up with the cumbersome "Washington, District of Columbia," which honors the father of our country and the guy who thought he found "Indians."

In its website, the capital calls itself the "District of Columbia," even though most citizens of the USA refer to the city as "Washington."  The home page has many references to "DC," but I could not find even one "Washington."

And now, in honor of Chris I will clean my garage (I anticipate some amazing discoveries) and then go to Home Depot, and then eat pizza for lunch.


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