No clear consensus on origin of 'Oregon'

Here is a simple question that even people who have lived here for generations don't seem to know. How did Oregon get its name? Is it a Native American word or what?

— Larry K., Ashland

There are long-of-tooth folks here at SYA Pioneer Hall with family roots tapping deep into Oregon history who are scratching their heads over that one, Larry.

In fact, about the only aspect of the name that we webfeet know for sure is that it is pronounced "Orygun," not "Orygone."

But we went straight to the experts for this one: the authors of the well-respected "Oregon Geographic Names," the bible of all Oregon geographic names.

The book notes the first mention of the name appears to have been by Maj. Robert Rogers in 1765. The English officer used the form "Ouragon" or "Ourigan" in a petition for exploring the open country west of the Great Lakes, the book reports.

"The rout ... is from the Great Lakes towards the Heart of the Mississippi and from thence to the River called by the Indians Ouragon ..." he wrote.

Our rabid Francophiles here at SYA quickly observed that "ouragan" is the French word for hurricane.

Others say it was derived from the Shoshone word "Oyer-un-gon," meaning "a place of plenty." Another theory is that Oregon is a form of Orejon, meaning big ears — a term applied by Spaniards to Indian tribes whose ears were enlarged by loads of ornaments.

Then there is the one that Oregon is a form of Aragon, and the name was given to the new country by Spanish missionaries as a mark of courtesy to Ferdinand of Aragon, prince consort of Queen Isabella.

In the April 1944 edition of "American Speech," George R. Stewart argues that the name was an engraver's error involving a river on a French map from the early 1700s. The river was the Ouisconsink (the Wisconsin), which was misspelled Ouariconsint and hyphenated after the "Ouaricon-."

A fellow named Jonathan Carver in the late 1700s appears to have first used the word "Oregon" when referring to the "River of the West that falls into the Pacific Ocean," according to the geographic names book.

In any case, it's a good question, Larry, given this is Oregon's sesquicentennial — 150th birthday year.

Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by e-mail to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.

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