Big Jim: Tucson's name

2013-08-13T00:00:00Z 2013-08-13T08:19:22Z Big Jim: Tucson's nameJim Griffith, Special to the Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

When I was a kid in Southern California, I heard a story about the New Yorker who was telling his buddies about his trip to the Golden State.

“They've got some weird names out there,” he said. “There's one town where they spell it “La Jolla” but they pronounce it “San Peedro!” Our town is not quite that bad off, but we sure don't say it the way we spell it. As long as we're into Tucson's birthday month of August, here's the story.

For hundreds of years there has been a village of the people who call themselves O'odham - “The People” at the foot of the hill we now call “A Mountain.”

(A hundred years ago it was “Sentinal Peak,” before a group of University students put the “A” on it in 1915, following a pair of football victories over Pomona College.)

O'odham place names tend to be descriptive, and the village was called “Schuk Shon”, which loosely translated means “at the foot of the Black Mountain.” That was its name when a detachment of the Spanish Army arrived in 1775 to establish a presidio or cavalry outpost across the river.

Now “Schuk Shon” doesn't run trippingly over the Spanish tongue, so the new fort became the el Presidio de Tucson, pronounced “Tookson,” with an accent on the final syllable.

It stayed that way for quite a few years, up through the 1860s and the arrival of the Americans. We know this because Civil War diaries and accounts talk about a place called “Tukson.”

When did Tucson change its pronunciation but not its spelling? My guess is that the switch happened after the arrival of the transcontinental railroad bringing more Anglos as well as increasing pressure for statehood.

A final change in pronunciation seems to have taken place around the 1940s and 50s, when the accent settled firmly on the first syllable.

So now you know.

But it's still fun to get long-distance soliciting phone calls that use the phrase “right here in Tukson.” That’s a good time to hang up. You can also hang up on anyone who tries to tell you that our city has its name because it is between Oneson and Threeson.

As for our mysterious sister city of Tuscon, I’ve never found it, although I occasionally get mail addressed to that place. My instinct is to return it unopened.

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About this blog

Jim Griffith is the former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, and co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself. He’s also the author of seven books on the folklore and folklife of our region, most recently “A Border Runs Through It.” His books can be purchased at tucson.com/wildcatgear.

If you have questions or suggestions for Jim Griffith or this blog, e-mail bigjimgriffith@gmail.com