I learned many years ago from my friend Gordon Day that Native American toponymy (the study of place names) is one tricky business, and I have no business mucking about in this business, but today I was reading – with great delight! – Washington Irving’s 1809 A History of New York (affectionately known as “Knickerbocker’s History“), and it set me to wondering about the REAL meaning of the Lenape name for “the Island at the Center of the World.”
I will spare you the lengthy discussion of William Wallace Tooker, the frontispiece of whose 1901 study you see above. Dr. Tooker, inspired originally it seems, by the imminent consolidation of the five boroughs of New York City into one in 1898, prepared a paper for presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1897. Read in his absence at that gathering, he then expanded it into a longer article for publication in the Brooklyn Eagle, before further expanding it for this little book.
I am weighing in today because, ever since meeting Gordon, and his mentor Joseph Laurent’s New Abenaki Dialogues (1884), I have always thought it suggestive that the Western Abenaki word for island is menahen. Say it a few times, with the stress on the middle of the three syllables. Sounds an awful lot like a word that could have been heard back in the late 16th and early 17th century by Dutch and English ears as “Manhattan,” doesn’t it?
What seems even more suggestive though is the Abenaki word for “Indian” or “person” or “human being” – alnânbai. In other Algonquian dialects as well, it comes out pretty close to “alnopa.” Now, say that, then say “Lenape.”
Since the wonderful “Mannahata Project,” which was in part inspired by the Hudson Quadricentennial in 2009, “Manna-hatta” is again as fashionable on the tongues of Knickerbockers as it was in Washington Irving’s day, in the wake of the publication of his droll History. I think that “hilly island” is still the popular translation that is usually bandied about for this great island, but I like to think that, like “Lenape” meaning “human being,” the island’s native people called their home “the island.” Sort of like New Yorkers say “the city” when referring to their home.