Q: I came across a website that says the use of the word “Indian” for a Native American is derived from the Spanish phrase Gente de Dios. Whaddya think?
A: Didn’t your mother tell you not to believe everything you see on the Web?
The website of La Prensa, a weekly newspaper for Latinos in the Midwest, does indeed say the term “Indian” is derived from that Spanish phrase for People of God.
A “Latino History” page on the site says Gente de Dios was later shorted to en Dios, then endios, and finally “Indian.”
“Yes, ‘Indian’—they were called Indians,” La Prensa adds, “not because they were thought to live in India but because they were children of God.”
As you suspect, that etymology is nonsense—or as one would say in Spanish, una tontería.
The truth, as you were undoubtedly taught in school, is that Christopher Columbus did indeed think he’d reached India when he landed in the Americas and that he referred to the natives as “Indians” in Spanish.
In the diary of his first voyage to the Americas, which Columbus wrote in 15th-century Spanish, he repeatedly referred to the indigenous population as indios and yndios.
Here’s a modern Spanish version of the diary in which he describes the islands he visited in the region as estas islas de India (these islands of India).
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, the use of the term “Indian” for the indigenous people of the Americas is the result of “Columbus’s assumption that, on reaching America, he had reached the east coast of India.”
The word “Indian” in this sense first showed up in English, according to OED citations, in the mid-16th century.
The earliest reference in the OED is from A Treatyse of the Newe India With Other New Founde Landes and Islandes (1553).
Here’s the citation from Richard Eden’s translation of a work by the German cartographer Sebastian Münster: “They saw certayn Indians gatheringe shel fyshes by the sea bankes.”
Not surprisingly, the adjective “Indian” in reference to the people of India entered English a lot earlier—in the late 1300s, and the noun “Indian” in that sense first showed up around 1400, according to OED citations.
Although English adapted the adjective and noun “Indian” from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French indien, the dictionary notes, the geographic name “India” is a direct borrowing from Latin and showed up centuries earlier.
The OED has two Early Old English citations from History Against the Pagans, a work by Paulus Orosius, a church historian who lived in the late 4th and early 5th centuries.
We won’t go through La Prensa’s “Latin History” page point by point, but we should note one other questionable statement: “Christopher Columbus, by the way, was not his real name—it was Cristóbal Colón.”
Columbus, who made four voyages to the New World under the auspices of the Spanish Crown, was born Cristoforo Colombo on Oct. 31, 1451, in the Republic of Genoa, now part of modern Italy.
“Christopher Columbus” is an Anglicized version of his name in Latin, Christophorus Columbus. Cristóbal Colón is the Spanish version of his name and Cristóvão Colombo is the Portuguese version.
Columbus was a man of the world who spoke all those languages. We imagine that he referred to himself by the name used in whichever language he was speaking.
In his diary, for example, Columbus writes his name in the Spanish of his time: almirante don x’val Colón (almirante is Spanish for “admiral” and “x” is short for Cristo, or “Christ”).
Columbus, by the way, didn’t invent the use of “x” as an abbreviation for “Christ.” This convention is more than a thousand years old, as we’ve written on our blog.
In a posting six years ago, we noted that the practice grew out of Greek, in which “Christ” begins with the letter “chi,” or “X.” In Greek letters it’s spelled ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ.
Check out our books about the English language