Monday, May 10, 2010

Greystroke City, California

The problem with folk etymologies and any other urban legends explaining how a place name or thing name came to be is that they are usually so very tempting. They fit perfectly — often too perfectly — to the extent that it’s a letdown to discover that the alleged story behind the name isn’t actually the case.

And then, every now and then, there’s the seeming folk etymology that turns out to be accurate.

Take the Tarzana area of Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, for example. The name sounds a lot like the name of the protagonist of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s series of novels, but a connection between the literary feral child-turned-jungle king seems so implausible that I’d have to guess that the name came from somewhere else — a family name or maybe a Southern California Indian name that became corrupted into its current state just by virtue of its similarity with the pop culture phenomenon. In this case, however, the obvious association is the right one: Tarzana does, in fact, take its name from the Edgar Rice Burroughs character. In the early 1900s, this land was known as Runnymede. But by 1920, Burroughs purchased the estate of L.A. Times founder and publisher Harrison Gray Otis and built a home there which he named the Tarzana Ranch. The area was eventually subdivided and developed upon, and when in either 1927 or 1928, the area had officially become known as Tarzana.

Another victory for the king of the jungle. Cue “the victory cry of the bull ape.” Somewhere, Carol Burnett is pleased.

Sources: Wikipedia, William Bright’s 1500 California Place Names

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