proposed etymology for "Indian"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Sun Oct 16 02:29:14 UTC 2005

It's a very commonly repeated false etymology. The chief vector is George
Carlin who incorporated it into one of his comedy routines. I debunk it in
"Word Myths."

Near as I can tell, the false etymology dates to Peter Matthiessen's 1984
book "Indian Country." Matthiessen uses the "it has been suggested" dodge to
excuse his not actually looking up the facts (which are easy to find).

This version is different than most other tellings in that it ascribes the
term "New World" to Chris. Columbus didn't call the land he found "the New
World." Vespucci was the first to do that. Columbus to his dying day thought
he had found a western route to Asia. He used the word "Indian" because he
thought he had found the [East] Indies. Other tellings, including
Mattheissen and Carlin, go into an incorrect diatribe about how India was
not called that in the 15th century, but instead was called Hindustan. This
is incorrect. "India" is the older term in European languages. "Hindustan"
was not used by Europeans until well after Columbus.

Columbus's 1494 letter describing the 1492 voyage can be found online, both
in the original and in English translation: In it, it is absolutely
clear that he thinks he is in Asia and calls the natives Indians because he
thinks it is the Indies.

--Dave Wilton
  dave at

> -----Original Message-----
> From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU]On Behalf
> Of James A. Landau
> Sent: Saturday, October 15, 2005 4:55 PM
> Subject: proposed etymology for "Indian"
> Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji) "One thing Columbus didn't do" Philadelphia
> Inquirer Monday, October 10, 2005, page A11 column 4
> <quote>
>     So whence did this word _Indian_ derive?  The  Spanish friars who
> accompanied the Italian navigator Columbus to the land he  called
> "the new world",
> although it was a world old to the indigenous people,  were so
> enamored of the
> total trust and innocence of the inhabitants that in  Spanish
> they called them
> _Los Nin~os in [sic] Dios_, The children of God.   This was, of
> course, soon
> shortened to _Indios_.
>      And even today, throughout South and Central  America, the indigenous
> people are still called "Indios."  As the European  cultures
> bumped into each
> other in North America the name again changed to  "Indian" in
> America [sic] and
> Canada.
> </quote>
> I never heard this etymology before and I am skeptical.  For one
> thing, in
> present-day Spanish the preposition corresponding to English "in"
> is  "en", and
> as far as I know this was true in Columbus's day.  Hence by the  above
> argument, the name should be "Endios"
>      - James A. Landau

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