Antilles

I often get a taste of something gill-like – or perhaps like a flap of a fabric frill – from ill words, such as the girl’s name Jill and the place name Antilles. I find the word Antilles to be a somewhat delicate-seeming word, a bit French-ish (its Greek overtones from Achilles notwithstanding), in contrast with other names that can also be used for that sweep of islands from just north of South America to just south of North America: the West Indies (which includes some islands not part of the Antilles, such as the Bahamas), the Caribbean islands, and the various names of the individual islands, which include assorted territories of colonial countries (including the Netherlands Antilles, British Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, French West Indies) as well a goodly number of independent – but not always affluent – nations.

The pronunciation of Antilles varies from language to language. The word is a little different in some (Spanish Antillas, Portuguese Antilhas, Dutch Antillen) and clear enough in those versions, and the French pronunciation is obvious enough to those who speak French. An anglophone, on the other hand, may well be confused until he’s told. But, as I have already hinted, it’s a rhyme for Achilles. It sounds like until he’s. It may make you think of Milli Vanilli, that duo of great dancers but musical impostors. Such an echo would be basically useless, however, neither of the front men of that group being from the Antilles.

Nearly as useless would be the echo that it tends to have most strongly for me: anthills. Anthills are, after all, beehives of activity – ah, let me rephrase that: they are anthills of activity. Oh, heck, you know what I mean. They’re regimented, and busy busy busy. This is not the image of the Antilles – we’re talking the Caribbean, mon. Irie is what it’s all about. Relaaaax. the sun will always shine. (OK, a hurricane here, a hurricane there, but the sun still comes out after.) The weather is always warm. There are always beaches, and rum punch. Tourism is very big in these islands. For those of us who have taken vacations in the Antilles, they certainly are not useless. But you know what is useless? Folk etymology.

I’ll explain. I was recently in Aruba and Curaçao, both part of the Lesser Antilles, both territories of the Netherlands. One of the bits of touristic information I was given suggested that Antilles came from the Spanish designation of the Lesser Antilles (the smaller, more southern islands) as Islas Inútiles: “Useless Islands.”

Oh, folk etymology on place names abounds. I’m sure to get into this topic again. As to Antilles, it would be tidy to have a cut-and-dried origin. But in fact it seems that Columbus called the islands he encountered Antillas because he had been told to expect to encounter an island called Antillia before he got to the Asian continent. Cartographers at that time did, it seems, feel free to posit as certain – and even to map out with some specificity – places that they had simply concluded ought to exist, or had somehow come to believe from hearsay were there. Why, to make things up just because they decided it was so! Who does that? Aside from half of everybody at least, that is. Which is why we get so much BS circulating as etymology.

Oh, and where does Antillia come from? That’s disputed, but a rather plausible explanation is that it’s from Latin for “before” (ante) and “islands” (illas). So the Antilles are the islands before the mainland. Fair enough: we stopped at them before we got to Panama and Costa Rica (we being my wife and I, among others on the boat). Which in turn we stopped at before we came back home…

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