Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The name Jolon

Q: Is Jolon a real Native American name? I found it on a list of baby names online, but there is no tribe listed. According to the list it is pronounced joe-lawn and means "valley of the dead oaks."

A: Online lists of baby names are notoriously inaccurate sources of Native American words, and I would definitely recommend taking them with a grain of salt.

In this case, Jolon is a place name in California, not a baby name, and it is pronounced huh-LONE, not joe-lawn. It comes from the Salinan language by way of Spanish. Many different meanings of the original Indian name have been claimed over the years, including "valley of dead oaks," "leak," "meeting place," "bulrushes," and "place of much cattle." Of all these, the only one associated with an actual Indian word is "leak," which is xolon in the Salinan language (that "x" is pronounced raspily, like the "j" in "jalapeño," so it's extremely believable the Spanish would have spelled it with a "j" as it passed through their language.) None of the other suggested definitions seem to have much merit-- according to the Salinan dictionary we have in our language library, "the oaks" is hopatnelat, "meeting" is timuyo, "bulrushes" is axoneł, and "cattle" is paca (borrowed from the Spanish word for cow, vaca, since cattle were not native to North America.) In his well-researched book Native American Placenames of the United States, the late linguist William Bright also goes with the "leak" etymology, suggesting that the sense may have been "a channel where water cuts through."

First names taken from place names are very popular these days, but I have to say that personally, I'd recommend against naming a baby "leak"!

Have a good day,
Native Languages of the Americas

Further reading:
Native American baby names
California Indian languages
Native American tribes