Thursday, January 15, 2015

Tularecito

In Steinbeck's book "The Pastures of Heaven" there is a character named Tularecito. Steinbeck says this means "Little Frog" and the character was named thusly because he looks like a toad and was found as child. So, for maybe 20 years I thought the word "Tulare" means frog and the diminutive is "Tularecito" or little frog. I blindly accepted that as truth (as did millions of students, teachers and readers) and never had the chance to use the word in any other context. Why would Steinbeck lie? Pancho, a Mexican character in the book, named the little frog-like boy so why would he fail to know his own language? Well, today, the word Sepa (I "know") Subjunctive came up in Spanish lessons because I got it confused with Sapo (Frog) and I said, "Oh, como Tularecito?" 
And my teacher frowned. "Tularecito?" he asked. 
"Si, un sapo pequeno. En un personaje en un libro por John Steinbeck. Tularecito."
My teacher frowned again.

What followed was a painful exploration of this word, something Steinbeck would've appreciated, an investigation into all languages on the internet, all Spanish dictionaries and any printed history on the internet involving frogs and Tulare...and we reached the conclusion that no such Spanish word exists in this meaning. Allow me to explain:

Tulare is a county in California and it is named after a swampy reed-like plant, a tule rush. So, Tularecito means, "Small reed-like plant". Tule was in turn an Aztec or Nahuatl word, Tollin, for a reedy plant in a marsh. Tulare Lake was once the largest freshwater lake in the Western North America until the demand for abundant asparagus and garlic diverted all the fresh water from the lake. It didn't merely drop in level; it vanished. Tulare Lake is now a dusty field, but keep telling yourself that mankind can not affect anything as big as The Earth. And I'll keep trying to develop a pill to cure stupidity. So the Tule rush name was imported by Spanish explorers after their conquest of Mexico...and applied to this freshwater lake in the Central Valley of California because the same vegetation grew there as grew near Mexico City. California itself gets a name from a 1510 fantasy about a paradise called Calafia that someone in the exploration crew must've read in his spare time. 

The word Tollin morphed a little into Tule and then to Tulare which is what a whole county is called. Then Steinbeck is born in California and is raised in Salinas and lives in Monterrey and travels all over California hearing words and decides or learns Tulare is the word that Pancho thinks means "Frog" so when he finds the boy with a misshapen head in the weeds he calls the boy, "Little Frog". Well, Pancho is either himself retarded and doesn't even know the Spanish word for frog is either Sapo or Rana, or Steinbeck is not in touch with reality and took the word for a county in central California where a dry lake sits and decided it means Frog. Or maybe Steinbeck asked the wrong person and got an incorrect translation of Tulare....which isn't Spanish no matter who you ask. And his editors never questioned. Tule, is a kind of distorted version of a Nahuatl word. But it isn't Spanish, and it doesn't mean Frog.
What was Steinbeck thinking?

I spent 20+ years believing that word Tularecito means frog and my limited research into the etymology today tells me that no one has yet published an account of this falsehood that Steinbeck has perpetrated. No one has questioned this translation until today, right now. Tularecito is a mix of a Spanish suffix after an Aztec word root imported by Spanish to a country that would later speak English. Steinbeck doesn't presume to be a language teacher and part of me wants to believe that he did this on purpose because Tularecito is a better name than Sapocito or Ranacito. But Tularecito at best means "Little Tule Reed" or "Little Tulare County" and at worst it's like saying Weed-cito and meaning little frog. Steinbeck is dead so there's probably no way to figure out what his intention was and where he decided this word Tulare means Frog. I'm sure he lived in Tulare county and maybe someone there thought the word means Frog, that the county was named after frogs, and not the reed that the frogs swam around.

Because this whole book concerns a mythical place, and this particular chapter concerns a mythical character and how truth and fiction often overlap because we want it to, there's probably a doctoral thesis in this topic. Was Steinbeck creating a myth (The meaning of Tularecito) that he knew readers would accept, to prove a point about the nature of myths? I will leave that for future inspired linguists. At least give me credit for being the first to point out that Tularecito doesn't mean Little Frog except in a fictional character's mind.
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.