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Posts Tagged ‘usage’

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