Byline: The Register-Guard
Washington? Easy: The state is named for the nation's first president. Nevada? Simple: It's from the Spanish word meaning snow-covered. California? A little tougher, but it derives from a Spanish name for a mythical island. And Idaho? Linguists are certain that it's a Shoshone word.
But the origin of Oregon's name has long been a mystery. It doesn't appear to derive from any local Indian language. Speculations that it is related to the Spanish word for marjoram (`oregano")," ear (`oreja") or slice of dried apple (`orejon") are unconvincing. Other theories hold that it's a corruption of Ouisconsink (Wisconsin) or some misspelling thereof, but those, too, seem far-fetched. The West's multiplicity of Native American languages and colonial-era explorers - Spanish, English, French, Russian and American - provide a plethora of possibilities, and a maze of blind alleys.
But now two researchers say they've cracked the riddle. Thomas Love, who teaches anthropology at Linfield College in McMinnville, and Ives Goddard, a linguist with the Smithsonian Institution, trace the name "Oregon" all the way back to Connecticut. It's derived from "wauregan," they say, a pidgin word that Connecticut tribes used to mean "good" or "beautiful."
This is a less colorful hypothesis than the one advanced three years ago, when the Oregon Historical Quarterly published a paper speculating that "Oregon" was derived from "ooligan," the name for a type of fish oil or grease that was widely traded in the period before white settlement. A place name connected to fish grease surely has more character, not to mention fragrance, than one related to such pleasing but generic qualities as goodness or beauty. …