Why Is California Called California?

A 16th-century Spanish romance novel tells of an earthly paradise “on the right hand of the Indies,” with steep cliffs and rocky shores. On this island utopia, which like Atlantis and El Dorado is full of riches, “there was no metal but gold” and the rulers were all strong Black women.

The name of that fictional Eden was California.

The novel, “Las Sergas de Esplandián,” by Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo and published around 1510, is believed to be the first time the word “California” appears in print, which is how I came across this old tale in my reporting.

The novel is believed to be where the state’s name came from, Alex Vassar, a spokesman for the California State Library, told me, though the matter isn’t entirely settled. Surprisingly little has been firmly established about the origin of a name known around the world.

“Numerous theories exist as to the origin and meaning of the word ‘California,’” reads a state legislative document from 2017. “All that is known for certain is that someone, presumably a Spanish navigator, applied the name to the territory that now comprises the State of California sometime before the year 1541,” when it first appeared on a map.

Some scholars have suggested that the name was derived from the Latin words calida fornax, meaning a hot furnace, or from a Native American phrase, kali forno, that means high hill or native land. But the most widely accepted theory is that de Montalvo’s book was so popular in the 1500s that Spanish adventurers in the New World would have known the legend of California.

So when the explorers Fortún Ximenez and Hernan Cortés sailed up the west side of Mexico, they apparently took the peninsula we now know as Baja California to be an island located exactly where de Montalvo’s book said “California” would be, east of Asia.

It took decades to correct the mistaken belief that California was an island, but the name stuck and came to be associated with much of the western edge of the continent.

Etymologically, de Montalvo’s “California” is thought to be linked with the word caliph, meaning a Muslim ruler or steward, which came from the Arabic spoken by the Muslim Moors who ruled much of Spain for centuries.

De Montalvo’s fictional land was ruled by a beautiful Black warrior who rode griffins into battle and was named Queen Calafia (sometimes spelled Califia). Often depicted as the spirit of California, Calafia is celebrated in a Depression-era mural by Lucile Lloyd that hangs in the State Capitol in Sacramento and in another by Diego Rivera at the San Francisco City Club.

“This state, which has spawned so many of its own myths, has its origin in myth,” PBS SoCal wrote. “The Spanish explorers were looking for an ‘island dream’ when they gave California its name. And hundreds of years later, people still come to California searching for their own piece of the California dream.”

Cupertino’s Cherry Blossom Festival, a community event that honors the Northern California city’s relationship with its sister city in Toyokawa, Japan, will return this month for its 40th anniversary.

The festival began only a few years after the two cities formalized their relationship as sister cities in 1978. Held on the last weekend of April, the event celebrates the bond by spotlighting Japanese food, culture and art. In addition to the usual anniversary festivities, this year’s event will also inaugurate the return of a student exchange program that was suspended at the start of the pandemic.

The festival will include an array of activities and performances, including Taiko drum groups, martial arts and dance performances, as well as exhibitions of student artwork.

It will be held on April 27 and 28, from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., at Memorial Park in Cupertino, with indoor programming at Quinlan Community Center and the local senior center. Admission is free.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Maia Coleman, Halina Bennet and Sofia Poznansky contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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