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Volcano names: the female factor 9 January 2011

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‘Can anyone tell me why volcanos are named after woman??’ asks Volcanism Blog correspondent Doris in a comment left on 22 December when I wasn’t here. I’ve looked at the issue of volcano names before on this blog, and very interesting it all is (‘From “throat of fire” to “many bats”: the naming of volcanoes’). As you’d expect there is a great variety of volcano names, from the physically descriptive to the highly imaginative, the commemorative to the utterly random. Some of the names do have what might be called a feminine aspect, although it is rarely as simple as a particular volcano being named after a particular woman, unless she is a saint.

There are volcanoes whose names suggest that they have been seen in some way as female: Mexico’s Iztaccíhuatl, ‘the woman in white’ is perhaps the best-known, but there’s also Kick’em Jenny in the Caribbean. Lewotobi in Indonesia consists of two stratovolcanoes, one of which is Lewotobi Perempuan: ‘perempuan’ is very much a female term and can be interpreted as ‘bride’ or ‘wife’ (the other volcano, Lewotobi Lakilaki, represents the ‘groom’ or ‘husband’). The North Sister Field in Oregon consists of two sisters (and a little brother), while a little way away is South Sister, making up the Three Sisters. Over in Alaska, Pavlof also has a sister. Among disputed volcano etymologies, Ecuador’s Chimborazo may mean ‘women of the ice’. Female saints and religious figures are honoured by, among others, Santa Ana (El Salvador), Santa Clara (Galápagos Islands), Santa Isabel (Colombia), St Catherine (Grenada) and Santa María (Guatemala). La Vírgen is one of the volcanoes making up Mexico’s Tres Vírgenes. As for Mount St Helens , that celebrated volcano is only indirectly connected with the saint of that name (mother of Emperor Constantine I), having been named after a British diplomat who took his title from the town of St Helens in north-west England.

Overall there seems to be a significant feminine presence among volcano names, but by no means a predominant one. More research is needed, however. Corrections/additions to the above and suggestions as to further examples are welcome.

The Volcanism Blog

From ‘throat of fire’ to ‘many bats’: the naming of volcanoes 29 July 2008

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Volcanoes impress people. They are powerful, beautiful, dramatic, sometimes dangerous; they inspire awe, fear, respect, and admiration.

The impact volcanoes have on those around them is often reflected in the names they are given. Variations on fire and smoke are naturally popular (Merapi, Popocatépetl, Llaima) but some are more poetic (‘woman in white’ – Iztaccíhuatl), intriguing (‘the gentleman’ – El Misti), or just plain baffling (‘many bats’ – Nyamuragira). Many volcanoes are named after saints and religious figures (Santa María, San Cristóbal), others after people such as diplomats (St Helens) and naval officers (Rainier*), while others have descriptive names, either physical (‘sharp peak’ – Ostry) or behavioural (Kick’em Jenny).

Here’s a selection of volcano name derivations, drawn from the Global Volcanism Program and elsewhere. This is a potentially vast subject, and also one peculiarly prone to error and confusion, so additions and corrections are welcome. The language from which the name comes is given in brackets after the name.

Agung, Indonesia – ‘paramount’ (Indonesian)
Bezymianny, Kamchatka – ‘nameless’ (Russian)
El Misti, Peru – ‘the gentleman’ (Quechua)
Guntur, Indonesia – ‘thunder’ (Indonesian)
Haleakala, Hawaii – ‘house of the sun’ (Hawaiian)
Huaynaputina, Peru – ‘new volcano’ (Quechua)
Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico – ‘the woman in white’ (Nahuatl)
Kilimanjaro, Tanzania – ‘shining mountain’ (Swahili)
Llaima, Chile – ‘veins of fire’ (Mapuche)
Mauna Kea, Hawaii – ‘white mountain’ (Hawaiian)
Mauna Loa, Hawaii – ‘long mountain’ (Hawaiian)
Merapi, Indonesia – ‘fire mountain’ (Indonesian)
Nyamuragira, DR Congo – ‘many bats’ (Lingala?)
Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania – ‘mountain of god’ (Maasai)
Ostry, Kamchatka – ‘sharp peak’ (Russian)
Popocatépetl, Mexico – ‘smoking mountain’ (Nahuatl)
Sabancaya, Peru – ‘tongue of fire’ (Quechua)
Sisquk (aka Shishaldin), Alaska – ‘mountain which points the way when I am lost’ (Aleut)
Trezubetz, Kuril Islands – ‘trident’ (Russian)
Tungurahua, Ecuador – ‘throat of fire’ (Quechua)
Wau-en-Namus, Libya – ‘oasis of mosquitoes’ (Arabic)
Wudalianchi, China – ‘five connected pools’ (Chinese)
Yake-dake, Japan – ‘burning mountain’ (Japanese)

* There was some resentment that Mount Rainier should be lumbered with the name of a British naval officer when the beautiful native name ‘Tacoma’ was already available. Unsurprisingly, the city of Tacoma was particularly keen that the name should be changed. Various attempts were made between the 1880s and the 1930s to consign the name ‘Rainier’ to history but the U.S. Board of Geographical Names wasn’t having it. For the history of the Rainier-Tacoma name controversy, see this article in Tacoma’s News Tribune: ‘How Mount Tacoma became Mount Rainier’, 25 October 2007.

The Volcanism Blog