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Mihm: Should we split California six ways?

A fisherman casts his line from the rocks

A fisherman casts his line from the rocks at Seal Beach, California, as the sun prepares to set on June 28, 2014. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Frederic J. Brown

Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper seems to be close to getting the signatures he needs to put a proposal to split California into six new states on the 2016 ballot. Draper's plan, dubbed the "Six Californias," reflects his conviction that the state has become "ungovernable" and that slicing it into smaller areas is the only way to make government more responsive to the people.

Let's put aside the question of whether it would be wise to carve up the nation's most populous, economically powerful state. That's small potatoes. The real issue is: What should we call the six new states?

It seems that Draper and his allies have already tackled this question. In a daring move, they've proposed that central California be called . Central California. Then there's South California, which is, well, the southern part of the state. And West California. And North California. Silicon Valley is going to be called - you guessed it - Silicon Valley.

Heck, the only new state among the six that shows any sign of turning over a new leaf is Jefferson, the name given to the region just south of the Oregon border. But this simply resurrects a long-dead proposal from 1941, when some of the region's rural citizens proposed to join with brethren in Oregon to create a new entity to escape the control of state capitols in Sacramento and Salem.

A modest proposal: If you're going to channel Thomas Jefferson, go for broke. Indeed, when it comes to coming up with memorable names for states, Jefferson remains king.

The year was 1784, and the United States had just secured its independence from Britain. To provide for the orderly settlement and incorporation of what was then called the "Northwest" (today's Midwest), Jefferson drafted a report for Congress that became the basis of the first "Northwest Ordinance." The draft proposed boundary lines that divided the region into territories. The erudite Jefferson, who studied both Native American tribal languages and Latin, marshaled both of these to name the territories. For much of what is now Wisconsin, he suggested Michigania, though the proposed territory didn't include any of modern-day Michigan. Jefferson's proposal for "Illinoia" - another Indian and Latin portmanteau - was closer to the mark, encompassing much of modern-day Illinois.

He really let loose with the other states. If he had gotten his way, much of modern-day Minnesota, for example, would have been Sylvania - "place of trees" or "woodland" - while most of today's Indiana would have been named Saratoga, in honor of a pivotal battle in the American Revolution. A good chunk of Ohio would have been named Washington.

Parts of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin would have belonged to the proud state of Assenisipia, in honor of the Indian name for Rock River; that would have left us saying Chicago, Assenisipia. Residents of Michigan's Upper Peninsula would have been stuck in Chersonesus, the Greek word for peninsula.

Nashville and much of eastern Kentucky (and some of Ohio) would have been part of Pelisipia ("land of the skins," presumably a reference to the fur trade). The wildest names, though, went to part of what is now the rust belt. Detroit and Cleveland would have been twin cities in the proud state of Metropotamia ("Head of the Rivers").

Congress ultimately scrapped Jefferson's proposals. But now Draper can revive them, at least in spirit. Although the names aren't transferable, why not follow Jefferson's lead and resurrect some of the Indian names? It's a time-honored tradition in the U.S., where almost half the states pay homage to Indian words or tribes.

Of course, given that the lands that created these states was taken from native tribes, Draper might want to check out historian Claudio Saunt's interactive map of Indian land cessions, which reveals some interesting possibilities for new names.

The Kumeyaay people, for example, might be persuaded to lend their names to Draper's "South California," given that so much of this particular swath of land was taken from them in the 1850s. And the affluent region around Los Angeles that Draper wants to name West California? Maybe Tejon would be better, given that this tribe (among many others) was forcibly removed from the land.

Perhaps that's just too depressing for the state's boosters (and the tribes might not go along). So here's another thought: Latin names. Of course, given the recent drought, naming any of the new states Polypotamia and Metropotamia might be asking for trouble. But there are other possibilities.

For drought-stricken central California, how about Siccitaria or Aridusia, or "Land of Dryness?" West California could go with Chasmatiasia, which roughly translates to "Land of Earthquakes that Leave Large Gaping Holes in the Ground." And the state of Jefferson, where marijuana is a major cash crop? Perhaps Polyfumatoria or Omnifumatoria, "Land of Many Smokers." South California, given its connection to Walt Disney, could be dubbed Murida, "Land of the Mouse," and North California could be Vindemiatoria, "Land of the Grape Growers."

And Draper's home, Silicon Valley? That's a hard one. Under the Six Californias plan, it would easily be the wealthiest, most elite state of the six. So perhaps Maximeopesia, which roughly translates to "Land with the Most Means, Wealth, Resources and Abundance."

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to the Bloomberg View.


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