What's in a Word | All Blogs

Almost paradise

By Debra Dobbins

The Acadia advertised in today's paper evokes a mental image of people freely dashing off to all sorts of blissful destinations. Such a vision was likely behind GMC's decision to name this vehicle as it did.

“Acadia” is yet another interesting example of how words evolve – or devolve – over time. Besides being the name of a vehicle, it is a proper noun describing a French settlement on the northeast coast of North America. According to Webster's, that settlement existed from 1604 to 1713. The dictionary notes that the area includes “what are now the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, plus parts of Quebec and parts of Maine.”

This vast region, however, was not always known by this exact name. According to Wikipedia, the entire north Atlantic coast north of Virginia was actually dubbed “Arcadia” by the 16th-century Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano, who admired the beauty of the trees he found in Virginia and Maryland. In later years, though, the “r” would be dropped and the region would be known as “Acadia.”

Da Verrazzano is said to have taken his inspiration for the region's original name from the ancient Greeks. As sea-lovers, the Greeks were constantly exploring – and conquering – new lands, according to Isaac Asimov in Words from History, Not every Greek, however, wished to venture far from home.

In inland Greece was a land-locked district known as Arcadia, Asimov writes. “The Arcadian townsmen and farmers did not travel or colonize. Lacking the stimulation of foreign ways, they clung to their older, more primitive life.”

As time went on, Asimov adds, the Arcadians came to be admired, even envied, for their uncomplicated ways. “The Roman poet Vergil, about 30 B.C., wrote of Arcadia as a place of the ideal simple life, the home of pastoral happiness, where shepherds piped to their flocks and were free of all the vice of cities.”

In 1590, Asimov continues, Sir Philip Sidney entitled one of his poems “Arcadia,” and “that fixed the word in the English language … [I]t now means any place of ideal but simple happiness.”

Thomas Cole's The Arcadian or Pastoral State, 1834
Photo of painting courtesy of Wikipedia



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