Friday, July 11, 2014

The meaning of Manhattan

Manhattan may be one of the best known and most populous islands in the world, but what its name actually means remains something of a mystery. A Wikipedia article on Manhattan states the name, originally written as Manna-hata, means "island of many hills" in the Lenape language, the Lenape being one of several Indian tribes that once lived on or visited the island. Douglas Hunter, author of the 2009 book Half Moon about Henry Hudson's New World exploration, which included a voyage up what is now known as the Hudson River, suggests other possibilities.

Hudson actually was commissioned in 1609 by the Dutch East India Company to find a northeast route to China, that is to sail through the Arctic waters north of Europe. He soon changed directions, deciding he would have better luck finding a northwest passage instead. Apparently even in the 17th century it was easier to get forgiveness than permission. Hudson thought the river might provide the answer. It didn't, but on his way he found what is now Manhattan Island. One of his officers, a man named Robert Juet, recorded the word Manna-hata in the Half Moon's logbook. Juet neglected to say where the name came from or what it meant, however.

Some authorities, Hunter writes, thought the name meant "people of the island" in an Algonquian dialect. Another theory says it meant "the island where we all became intoxicated." Someone else argued that none of the native languages would have had a word for intoxicated and that the name may have referred simply to foolishness.

What's true of the name Manhattan is true of most names eventually. They come to mean what or who they represent and their original meanings become obscure or lost altogether. Fortunately the Hudson River is not one of those names. We know where that name came from.

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