15

A while ago in January The Black Hebrew Israelites were speaking/shouting/proselytizing to surrounding people at Lincoln Memorial. The speaker claimed that the word "Indian" means "savage". A member from the crowd approached the speakers, claiming he was a historian, and that "Indian" is a Spanish word meaning "God-like people". Interestingly the speaker from the Black Hebrew Israelites agreed with him.

This video has been pulled by Youtube. Here is another link to the argument.

I had never heard this etymology before. I searched a number of dictionaries but they didn't give an etymology. At Merriam-Webster many of the user who looked up the word said they were prompted to do so because of this section of the video.

So I went to Online Etymology Dictionary, and found no trace of the word God.

In my admittedly meager research I did find a question on this very site, Why do Americans still call Native Americans “Indians”?. Interestingly I found some trace of this etymology from a quotation of comedian George Carlin in the second answer. I quote from the quotation from the answer of that user:

Now, the Indians. I call them Indians because that's what they are. They're Indians. There's nothing wrong with the word Indian. First of all, it's important to know that the word Indian does not derive from Columbus mistakenly believing he had reached "India". India was not even called by that name in 1492; it was known as Hindustan. More likely, the word Indian comes from Columbus's description of the people he found here. He was an Italian, and did not speak or write very good Spanish, so in his written accounts he called the Indians "Una gente in Dios". A people in God. In God. In Dios. Indians. It's a perfectly noble and respectable word.

Now, in fairness, I noticed that Carlin says "more likely the word Indian comes from", so it seems he qualified that statement with an expression of uncertainty.

Anyway, that's what I found. In a comment to that answer a user comments:

Deriving "Indian" from "In Dios" really really really sounds like a backronym (or backmanteau, or whatever). George Carlin was a comedian, not an etymologist or historian. Link

I have good reason to doubt this etymology, but it's surprising that it seems to be a popular etymology doing the rounds, such that two speakers in that video believed it, one of whom claimed he was a historian, and George Carlin also spread this.

My first question is: This is a false etymology, right? If so, any idea where it originated?

Second question (just for general knowledge): The word India was used for the geographical area of India going back a long way correct? It's not the case that it was only referred to as Hindustan. My reading on Wikipedia suggests that "India" was used by Herotodus in 4th century BC and from the 9th century in Old English.

4
  • India, Hindu, Hundustan, Sindh, Indus are all cognate words.
    – Mitch
    Mar 20 '19 at 22:51
  • Note that we now have a history of the history of these words. The earliest that the 'In Dio' explanation appears is the 1980's. If that history could be pushed back to the Comlumbian era, then it would have some support.
    – Mitch
    Mar 20 '19 at 22:55
  • 1
    Columbus went in search of Las Indias. Nothing to do with gente de Díos. So, it all down the Spanish. Las Indias becomes the Indies, in English. West Indies, East Indies. Also, los indios (people) would become Indians in English but I don't have a clear historical trail yet.
    – Lambie
    Sep 8 '20 at 19:04
  • isn't in also the negating particle, En. un-? What ungodly remark from me, I'm so sorry, I don't speak Spanish either (wrong stack, mate).
    – vectory
    Sep 13 '20 at 10:24
12

A Hathi Trust search of the bilingual (Spanish/English) edition of the Cecil Jane translation of The Four Voyages of Columbus: A Documentary History reports 90 instances of the word gente and 50 instances of the word Dios, but 0 instances of the phrase gente in Dios.

The earliest match for the "gente in Dios" etymology that a Google Books search turns up is from both The Ontario Indian, volume 4 (1981) and Parabola (1981):

Christopher Columbus going ashore in the Antilles, was struck by the profound well-being of the island Arawak. He called them indios, not because he imagined them to be inhabitants of (which in the fifteenth century was still called Hindustan) but because he recognized that these friendly, generous Taino people, soon to be extinct, lived in blessed harmony with their surroundings—"una gente in Dios, "a People in God."*

*(Courtesy of Russell Means)

These sources suggest that Russell Means, a Native American activist, was the earliest recorded source of the proposed etymology. Means may have been making this argument for some time (he was born in 1939), but I don't find any reference to his suggested etymology from before 1981.

Etymology Online reports that the word Indian in relation to subcontinental India entered English around 1300 and appeared in English texts in connection with North American native peoples no later than 1553:

Indian (adj., n.)

"inhabit of India or South Asia; pertaining to India," c. 1300 (noun and adjective), from Late Latin indianus, from India (see India). Applied to the aboriginal native inhabitants of the Americas from at least 1553 as a noun (1610s as an adjective), reflecting Spanish and Portuguese use, on the mistaken notion that America was the eastern end of Asia (it was also used occasionally 18c.-19c. of inhabitants of the Philippines and indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand). The Old English adjective was Indisc, and Indish (adj.) was common in 16c.

When a term is claimed to have a specific origin, it seems reasonable to ask for two kinds of corroboration: (1) evidence that the person who is said to have coined the expression actually said the word or (in this case) phrase that is attributed to him or her; and (2) evidence that the claimed origin was proposed or has for a reasonably long time been taken seriously by scholarly etymologists.

In the present case, we have no evidence that Columbus ever recorded the phrase "gente in Dios"; the paper trail for the claimed etymology (at this point) goes no farther back than 1981; its most likely popularizer had no academic background in linguistics; and (as far as I know) no professional etymologist has argued in favor of the claimed origin. Therefore, I think, the claim that "gente in Dios" is the source of Indian in connection with Native Americans is very probably an instance of false (or perhaps folk) etymology.

5
  • What about the synonyms of "gente", such as indígena, nativos, personas or pueblo?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 21 '19 at 7:17
  • 2
    The Italian etymology of India fails to mention anything about "people in/of God". Italian Wikipedia says Gli antichi Greci si riferivano agli indiani con il termine Indoi (Ινδοί), il popolo dell'Indo. "Indo people/population" Indo is derived from "Sindhu" meaning large body of water. No trace of God there whatsoever.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 21 '19 at 7:39
  • I'd concluded it was from Matthiessen's 1984 book, but it looks like it goes back further to 1981. Well I'm satisfied as to that origin. Thanks.
    – Zebrafish
    Mar 21 '19 at 11:23
  • @Mari-Lou-A the etymology is uncertain beyond that: "... from Old Persian 𐏃𐎡𐎯𐎢𐏁 (hindūš), from Proto-Iranian *hínduš, from Proto-Indo-Iranian *síndʰuš (“river”), of uncertain origin." [wiktionary] One has to wonder if the river had got the name from the word-sense, or rather if the word had got its sense from the name of the holy river. After all, the name goes for a whole region. In context of this question about "indios", "any idea where it originated", one should well consider if it could be that old, so to speak. After all, Indra is in fact a vedic god.
    – vectory
    Sep 13 '20 at 11:09
  • [cont.] A superficial look denies the possibility, since, if Latin d(eus) and PII *-dh- reflect not the same source, I'm at the end of my wits. However, there's the synonym theos, through Greek from *dheH-s. One could try for a more complicated theory, comparing with a little dignity: indigenous; theos, fanum; infidel, fides; Bharat "India"; adelphus ~ Sanskr. sagarbya (PIE *sem- + *gwelbh-; cp. Sanskr. garbhah, irregular OHG hwelp with changes seen too in: En. kid, cp. Lat. haedus, Sabine fedus "kid", En. goat [JIES Monograph 17, 1996, pg. 174]); nigre (black sea).
    – vectory
    Sep 13 '20 at 11:56
3

I think I found something interesting about this story. This is found in the Wikipedia article titled Native American name controversy.

First of all the article says about Columbus:

When he landed in the Antilles, Columbus referred to the resident peoples he encountered there as "Indians" reflecting his purported belief that he had reached the Indian Ocean.

Now here's an interesting part further down:

Alternative etymology

In the late 20th century, some American public figures suggested that the origin of the term was not from a confusion with India, but from the Spanish expression En Dios, meaning "in God", or a similar one in Italian. Proponents of this idea include the American Indian activist Russell Means; the author Peter Matthiessen, author of In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, a view of American Indian history through the life and trial of Lakota activist Leonard Peltier; and the comedian George Carlin.

In his book The Wind Is My Mother, the Muscogee writer Bear Heart (Nokus Feke Ematha Tustanaki) wrote: "When Columbus found the natives here, they were gentle people who accepted him, so Columbus wrote in his journal, 'These are people of God' ("una gente in Dios"). Later the 's' was dropped and Indio became Indian." However, as the writer David Wilton noted in his book Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, this phrase does not appear in any of Columbus' writing. Wilton also says that since Greek and Roman times, more than a millennium before the voyages of Columbus, many European languages used variations of the term "Indian" to describe the peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Alternative etymology

So these proponents espousing this curious etymology include the three people listed above. One of them was a Native American activist. This is interesting, but the evidence does point to this being an urban legend.

According to a post from three years ago on a Reddit thread, this etymology goes back to Peter Matthiessen's 1984 book Indian Country.

1
  • One problem though: The original doesn't exist anymore? The remote possibility, that existing copies were falsified to remove blasphemy, can hardly even be supported by evidence, and is thus a conspiracy theory. Arguably, there's no evidence either way, that the mentioned authors would have been to invent the apparent folk etymology; might have it from somewhere. So it looks like a minor conspiracy theory as well. Thus the argument warrants mention, not the least because of fringe theories purporting that the Americas were discovered earlier--Leif Eriksson isn't even fringe, now is it.
    – vectory
    Sep 13 '20 at 10:45
0

A while ago in January The Black Hebrew Israelites were speaking/shouting/proselytizing to surrounding people at Lincoln Memorial. The speaker claimed that the word "Indian" means "savage". A member from the crowd approached the speakers, claiming he was a historian, and that "Indian" is a Spanish word meaning "God-like people".

There is no qualification required for speaking near the Lincoln Memorial. In general, people do no research at all before accepting explanations, Your speaker was one such.

[George Carlin said] More likely, the word Indian comes from Columbus's description of the people he found here. He was an Italian, and did not speak or write very good Spanish, so in his written accounts he called the Indians "Una gente in Dios". A people in God. In God. In Dios. Indians.

George Carlin did no research either. It is highly unlikely as an origin.

OED:

Indian:

Etymology: < Anglo-Norman and Middle French indien (French indien ) of, from, or belonging to India (c1270 or earlier in Anglo-Norman; also as noun (c1265 in Old French as yndiien )),

of, from, or belonging to (any part) of the Americas (1588; after Indes : see Indies n.) < Inde Ind n. + -ien -ian suffix.

Compare Spanish indiano (adjective and noun) of, from, or belonging to India (1250),

of, from, or belonging to (any part) of the Americas (1550 or earlier),

Portuguese indiano (adjective and noun) of, from, or belonging to India (c1539 as adjective), Italian indiano (adjective and noun) of, from, or belonging to India (c1336 as adjective),

[You will recall that the natives of S. America are also called "Indians" and there are a group of islands called "The West Indies".]

of, from, or belonging to (any part) of the Americas (c1495 as adjective). With use as adjective compare Indic adj.1 and Indiary adj. With use as noun compare Indio n. Compare also Injun n., Ingin n.

-1

Wikipedia:

The name India is derived from Indus, which originates from the Old Persian word Hindush, equivalent to the Sanskrit word Sindhu, which was the historical local appellation for the Indus River. The ancient Greeks referred to the Indians as Indoi (Ἰνδοί), which translates as "The people of the Indus".

The geographical term Bharat (Bhārat; pronounced [ˈbʱaːɾət]), which is recognised by the Constitution of India as an official name for the country, is used by many Indian languages in its variations. It is a modernisation of the historical name Bharatavarsha, which traditionally referred to the Indian subcontinent and gained increasing currency from the mid-19th century as a native name for India.

Hindustan ([ɦɪndʊˈstaːn] is a Middle Persian name for India. It was introduced into India by the Mughals and widely used since then. Its meaning varied, referring to a region that encompassed northern India and Pakistan or India in its entirety. Currently, the name may refer to either the northern part of India or the entire country.

5
  • 4
    The OP asked "This is a false etymology, right? If so, any idea where it originated?" The OP also provided a link to the etymology dictionary, which is also a better reference than Wikipedia.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 20 '19 at 18:06
  • 2
    This is a copy-paste answer. Can you give any original commentary that helps explain the text as an answer to the OP?
    – Mitch
    Mar 20 '19 at 22:50
  • @Mitch - I'd get criticized for not providing references.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 20 '19 at 23:09
  • 1
    @HotLicks references (links/quote) are great. But ELU is not a redirection service. Add something or it's empty.
    – Mitch
    Mar 20 '19 at 23:50
  • 1
    What do you want to add? "Indian" is derived from "India". Columbus set out to discover "India" and insisted that he had for some years afterwards. It was natural to refer to the natives he brought back as "Indians". As for Carlin's piece, Carlin was a satirist, and anyone who listened to his performance for 5 minutes would know to take what he said with a grain of salt (even though he was a linguist of considerable acumen).
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 21 '19 at 0:03
-1

Indian is probably derived from the Latin word for Indigenous.

However, Indios doesn't seem to appear until well after the Americas were discovered. It most likely evolved as a play on words that doubles for "under god".

The Roman Catholic church believes God The Father is not only the father of Christ, but of the universe and therefore all humans as well.

That conflicts with other Roman Latin concepts that say different Gens had different Immortal fathers. The older mythology clearly made it to the Americas and is still reflected in the expression "Latin blood".

3
  • 2
    This answer would benefit from supporting research and less self-contradiction. Please take a tour of the site and read the FAQ.
    – livresque
    Sep 8 '20 at 21:49
  • Livresque - Roman Patrician (father) families are very well documented, the Roman Latins wrote it down. Can you tell me were my answer fails? I'm also wondering were this answer contradicts it's self as reading the FAQ didn't provide answers about either of your comments. Sep 10 '20 at 15:04
  • 1
    I commented from review to help you improve this. You could include the references that informed your research to make it sound less like your anecdotal opinion and edit for coherency to answer the etymology question with evidence. Also "included by the Catholic church" is vague and potentially misleading.
    – livresque
    Sep 10 '20 at 17:48

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.