What is in a name?

helmeted curassow
painting © by Nigel Hughes


Nobody knows what the name Curaçao comes from. It looks so exotic. The most asinine explanations have been offered. As is the case with so many Papiamentu (the Curaçao lingo) words, it may be the Indian name. But that would be out of tradition — not only Spaniards had a habit of giving all places they discovered new names of their own, which, mostly, stuck.
In the Taino dictionary of indigenous Caribbean languages, we find this listing: Curazao-Una de las islas del Archipi&eavute;lago antillano. Oviedo escribe Corazao. Corrupcíon [sic] de Curisao. Ojeda la denomina Isla de gigantes. [Curazao-One of the islands of the Antillean archipelago. Oviedo spells Corazao. Corruption of Curisao. Ojeda calls it Island of giants.]
Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdez Oviedo wrote Historia general y natural de las Indias Occidentales [General and natural history of the West Indies] (Seville, 1535); he consistently spells Colom for Colón [Columbus]. Spelling was then far from standardized in most languages.

When I first heard about the curassow bird, I jumped to the conclusion that this was what gave the island its name; others have fallen into the same trap. But experts tell me that the bird never lived on Curaçao island, which is confirmed by archeologist Jay Haviser: not a single curassow bone has ever been found here.
The bird got its name because it was introduced in Europe by way of Curaçao. They are generally brought from Carasow, from whence they take their Name. - Eleazar Albin, A Natural History of Birds, ~1750. What did they know about the correct spelling... they still find it hard to get it right. Something similar happened to peanuts, which used to be known in Holland as sausemangelen, "Curaçao almonds". Admittedly, peanuts do grow here - but never enough for export. The "Curaçao aloe" mostly came from Aruba and Bonaire and was merely shipped from Curaçao. Notwithstanding the "plantations", Curaçao agriculture never amounted to much, not only because of the water problem.
Funnily enough, people who speak English always pronounce the island name with emphasis on the first syllable (wrong) - but the name of the bird they get right at the first try. Another good reason to name this site after the bird.
Juan de Ampies, a Spaniard who was highly interested in the Curaçao Indians, wrote in a letter to the Spanish court that the native Indians of the island called themselves Indios Curaçaos and the island Curaçao (to spell it the present way, which should be as close, phonetically, as any other.)
What the name means is still a mystery. But then, what do so many country names mean?
Modianne Cathalina, Nationaal Archief, letter to Amigoe, 24 June 2007. Alas, Cathalina can't leave well enough alone and also, against all reason, defends Amerigo Vespucci as discoverer of Curaçao, not Alonso de Ojeda. Curaçao

another theory
Melvin Dovale was kind enough to contact me on this. He feels the island's name is derived from the bird's. For me it's hard to follow the reasoning: The Nazca drawings and the Titicaca Lake name (sometimes translated as 'Rock Puma') would offer proof that the Indians somehow must have been able to look down on the earth; the bird-like form of Curaçao island would then have given the Indians cause to call it after one of their favorite birds.
The first problem with this is that the Indians would have lacked the technology for this - so it must have been done by supernatural means. This can only be called supposition, if not superstition; there's no proof at all.
A second problem is that the bird's profile is not very like the turkey-like curassow bird; it much more resembles a warawara or skerchi-makwaku, both of which do occur here in abundance - and so do many more similar-looking birds.

I have not been able to find one single instance of a bird from this family being called 'curassow' by the Indians, which seems a definite rejection of this theory.

yellow-knobbed curassow

the curassow bird

There are several curassow birds, members of the Cracidae, the Crax family, one of the largest families of birds, which occurs in North, Central and South America. Other members are the Chachalacas and Guans. They vary in size, but the curassows are among the largest. They seem to be about the most delicious fowl around, which is saying a lot. They are protected.
It was a relative of the same family that lent one of KLM's West-Indian DC-5 aircraft its name Wakago. This bird occurs in Suriname as "little chachalaca" (Ortalis motmot).

more on Curassow birds:
Birds and Nature

If only because of the name, our Cas Corá zoo should have some curassow birds.

Now here's a funny thing
There's a Curaçao Reef somewhat removed from the West Canadian coast (say halfway between Seattle and Alaska) — to be exactly exact, 55.65352N 133.45543W. If you're into all that, mucho interesting.

Geographer François van der Hoeven found an island named Curacoa close by the coast of Queensland, Australia (18°40'7.87"S-146°33'11.66"E); native name Noogoo; it's only ~4km long and 1.7 wide. Curaçao was and is often spelled like that. But then, next to yet another Curacoa Reef there also is a Curacoa volcano in Tonga, Pacific, say 800km to the East of Fiji (15°37'12.00"S-173°40'12.00"W.)

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