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The Sierras

the east side of the sierras, near mono lake

the east side of the sierras, near mono lake

A little while back someone corrected me about referring to our mountains as “the Sierras,” claiming that Sierra Nevada means “snowy range” and should just be shortened to “Sierra,” no plural. Well, I was skeptical — I’ve called it that all my life and thought everyone else did, too — but before I embarrassed myself with incorrect usage on this blog, I tried to check it out. The best authority I found was a 1947 Sierra Club article excerpting a 1927 article by Francis Farquhar — author of History of the Sierra Nevada (which Anita and I carried with us on the John Muir Trail five years ago and read cover to cover during a snowstorm) and purportedly “the authority on Sierra place names” (he has a book called Place Names of the High Sierra, so it might be true) — who writes:

‘The SPANISH word sierra means “range of mountains,” and is usually found in combination with other words, such as Sierra Blanca (White Range), Sierra Madre (Mother Range, or Central Range), and Nevada (Snowy Range)… The Sierra Nevada is distinctly a unit, both geographically and topographically, and is well described as “una sierra nevada.” Strictly speaking, therefore, we should never say “Sierras,” or “High Sierras,” or “Sierra Nevadas” in referring to it. Nevertheless, these forms are so frequently found in the very best works of literature and science that it would perhaps be pedantic to deny their admissibility. It becomes, therefore, a matter of preference, and for our part we rather like to keep in mind the unity of our great range by calling it simply “The Sierra” or “The Sierra Nevada.”

Having thus promised not to look askance at “Sierras,” we may perhaps be spared the pain of hearing “Sierra Nevada Mountains.” Surely one does not say “Loch Katrine Lake,” “Rio Grande River,” or “Saint San Francisco.”’

I don’t have Farquhar’s authority, but I would say that we’re speaking English, not Spanish, and when we capitalize Sierra, we make it a name and create distance from the Spanish meaning. Just about every other mountain range gets the plural: the Whites, the Rockies, the San Jacintos, the Alps, etc… And one does indeed say Loch Katrine Lake in California. For instance, with the Loch Leven Lakes, in the very same Sierras. You have to go to Scotland to just call it Loch Katrine or Loch Leven.

But the 1948 author, who cites this 1927 Farquhar article, knows all about a person like me:

‘The name “Sierras” is still stuck to by a few recalcitrants who probably concluded that logic has nothing to do with the acceptance of place names, and who could cite, in accepted nomenclature, many redundancies such as Little Chico Creek (Little Little Creek).

‘We cannot argue logically with persons who deprecate logic; nevertheless, we can call them names. So we aver that the man who will say “Sierras” will also say “Frisco,” and is probably on a par with the printer who would letter-space lower case type. Such a printer, said Goudy, would steal sheep.’

To which I say: Hey, below the belt. I would never say “Frisco.”

Anyways, now that I’m paying attention, I notice some people saying “the Sierra” and some saying “the Sierras.” Both seem acceptable. Neither group seems like they would steal sheep.

— Update —

I found a stereoscope by Edward Muybridge from around 1870 that labels them the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though he predates Farquhar, Muybridge was from England and at one point tried to plead temporary insanity at a murder trial, so I’m not sure he should be seen as an authority.

Stereoscope by Edward Muybridge, c. 1870

Stereoscope by Edward Muybridge, c. 1870

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8 Responses to “The Sierras”

  1. August 15th, 2009 at 8:06 am

    Brad B says:

    I actually have heard people say the Rio Grande River, which south of the border is called the rio bravo. I think that serves as an excellent example of the fact that these names are now English, of sorts, and not strictly Spanish. There are all sorts of mispronunciations and misusages in our Spanish place names. When I’m speaking Spanish, I wouldn’t say sierras, but when speaking English it would sound strange to follow Spanish grammar rules. Mountain ranges are referred to in the plural as you stated.

    He sounds like an uptight English teacher, the type that ignores usage and gave us sentences like “With whom did you speak?” which is actually based on Latin grammar and has nothing to do with native English structure.

    Though you have mustered sheep Ryan. I’ve heard that’s a gateway to stealing sheep. Maybe I’m wrong afterall.

  2. August 15th, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Susie says:

    Once a rebel, always a rebel. As a native Californian, I have always lovingly refered to our Sierra Nevada Mountains as the Sierras or the High Sierras.

  3. August 17th, 2009 at 6:56 pm

    buenorific says:

    I love the SIERRAS!

  4. August 23rd, 2009 at 10:04 am

    ryan says:

    I was mustering the sheep with the full knowledge and permission of the owner, and I have complete control over my mustering habit.

  5. August 29th, 2009 at 2:38 am

    eurica says:

    My husband is geologist so that the “stone” part of your blog caught my attention. Plus the fact that we are from the very dry Namibia and stones form a part of most gardens here.
    Then I found your sierras / sierra very interesting entry. Always nice to learn something – not knowing better I thought it was Sierra Mountains. I will not make that mistake again.

  6. November 23rd, 2011 at 11:08 am

    aspidoscelis says:

    A couple years late to the party, but I’m one of those folks who disapproves strongly of “the Sierras”. The improper pluralization is one thing* but the bigger problem is that it simply isn’t a place name, it’s just “the mountain ranges”. Referring to the Sierra Nevada as “the Sierras” implies a parochial worldview, without any awareness of, you know, all those *other* mountain ranges, dozens or perhaps hundreds of which have “Sierra” in the name.

    *Although it is a closely related problem! When you say:

    “Just about every other mountain range gets the plural: the Whites, the Rockies, the San Jacintos,”

    If we call the Sierra Nevada “the Sierras” we should call the White Mountains “the Mountains” and the Rocky Mountains “the Mountains” and the San Jacinto Mountains “the Mountains”. For examples that are more parallel to “the Sierras”, we should also call the Cascade Range “the Ranges”, the Amargosa Range “the Ranges”, the Toiyabe Range “the Ranges”, etc. “The Sierras” is not consistent with normal English usage. For that, we’d have to use “the Nevadas”. But no one does that… so consistency with normal English usage is moot.

  7. January 29th, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Lynn Starrs says:

    The Sierra sounds pretty! The other, which I will not even type, does not. Why brag about and institutionalize the tragic ignorance of the Spanish language that most of us Californians suffer from. Including me.

  8. February 1st, 2012 at 12:22 pm

    ryan says:

    Aspidoscelis: Always welcome at the party. It’s good to have some dissenters. Though your argument seems to be based wholly on the fact that sierra means range in Spanish. A fair point, but we’re not speaking Spanish. In English it’s a name, so it is fine to shorten the name.

    Lynn Starr: You might be right that ‘The Sierra’ sounds prettier. I don’t think it has much to do with ignorance of Spanish, though. I’m not ignorant of Spanish, I’ve been speaking it fluently for years. But maybe that’s why I don’t like the sudden shift to a different language; to me it sounds like when people say Mexico or Argentina with the Spanish pronunciation: appropriate if they are native Spanish speakers, but contrived if they are native English speakers.