Much of our geographic nomenclature is highly unsatisfactory. There are features for which names are needed that have no name; there are names that are not needed; and almost all of the coinages of the past century have been the work of prosaic scientists, fatuous hucksters, or political lickspittles. This is not simply a geographer’s lament, since we cannot think clearly if we lack names for the features that really matter, and we cannot dwell comfortably if the names that we have are drab, preposterous, or grating.
This complaint leaves me in a predicament, since I am on the one hand hungry for more geographic names, but also paralyzed by anticipatory disgust for the names that will be most likely proposed. Scientific terms are admirably suited to the purposes of science, but like the reality science describes, they are hardly fit for human habitation. We need no more viewless “Valleyviews,” no more treeless “Shady Lanes,” no more waterless “River Bends.” And in our present state of rancorous political disunion, to name anything after a politician would amount to poking half the population in the eye.
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The Gulf of Mexico is an unsatisfactory name because it is not a gulf and it is only tenuously Mexican. I am not the first geographer to raise the first objection, although I may well be the only objector who is presently alive. A gulf is properly an arm of the ocean that is larger than a bay but smaller than a sea. As with all geographic terms, the definition of a gulf is rather fuzzy, and there can be no real objection to the Persian Gulf being nearly the same size as the Red Sea. But the Persian Gulf is about as big as a gulf ought to be, and the Gulf of Mexico is more than six times larger.
On the western shore of Mexico, one can see a decent gulf, the Gulf of California, which is about one tenth the size of the grandiose and misnamed water body to the east. The Gulf of California is about the same size as the other true and deserved gulfs of this world—the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gulf of Tonkin, the Gulf of Carpentaria. (The Gulf of Guinea is an abomination, and I endure the pipsqueak gulfs of Suez and Aqaba only out of respect for the similarly diminuative Gulf of Corinth).
The water body that lies between Cuba and the mainland of North America should be called a sea. And some very old geographers had the good sense and honesty to call it just that—The Mexican Sea.
This is not a perfect name, but it is headed in the right direction.
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The history of this regrettable name does, however, afford me a means of taking revenge on the misnomer. In the seventeenth century, English geographers were wont to Latinize Golfo de Mexico as Sinus Mexicano, or Sinus Mexic. In Latin, the word sinus denotes a fold (cf. sinuous), and hence an enfolded cavity (e.g. a sinus), so that any body of water that was enfolded by a concave coastline (i.e. any bay or gulf) the Latinizing geographers called a sinus. For instance, Nathanial Carpenter wrote of the Sinus Mexicano in his Geography Delineated of 1635.
Given that lowland Texas is home to acute allergies and suppurating sinus infections, and that the word sinus thus has for most Texans vivid and disgusting associations, I take no small pleasure in calling our misnamed southern sea the Sinus of Mexico.
“I hear we can expect some hot and humid air to blow in from the Sinus of Mexico!”
Of course no one understands my little joke, but no one listens to me closely enough to know that they don’t understand.
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But the word gulf is only half of the problem. The other half is that word Mexico. Here my objection is not simply that most of the Gulf coast is not today part of Mexico; it is that, when the Gulf first received its name, not one inch of the Gulf coast was part of Mexico. Until 1821, when the newborn country of Mexico won its independence from Spain, “Mexico” was the name of the valley in which the colonial capital was located, far inland from the Gulf, and high atop the plateau of Anahuac. Until 1821, the name “Mexico” stood in much the same relation to New Spain as the the name “District of Columbia” nowadays stands to the United States of America.
The Gulf was, therefore, called a “gulf” before its great size was appreciated, and it was said to be “of Mexico” only because it was by way of this uncomprehended sea that one approached the old Aztec capital in the Valley of Mexico. Thus the name “Gulf of Mexico” was bestowed because the water body stood to what is now Mexico City in much the same way that the Gulf of Lyon stands to the city of Lyon.
When I am in a good mood, and so not disposed to defame the Gulf as the dripping and sniffling Sinus of Mexico, I like to think of it as the Mexic Sea. The term sea is, of course, appropriate; and the name Mexic seems to respect history without feeding the ambitions of our jealous southern neighbor. This name is not my invention, and was indeed rather common in the verse of Southern poets for fifty years after the Civil War. An especially euphonious line sang of “the murmuring Mexic Sea.”
I believe this line originated in a camp song of the famous cavalry unit known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. In the second verse, the Rangers sang,
Our men come from the prairies rolling broad, proud and free,
From the high and craggy mountains to the murmuring Mexic’ Sea.
(In addition to containing a lovely line, this may well be the best twenty-two word geography of Texas ever written.)
In 1877, this line from The Song of the Texas Rangers was quoted in “Louisiana,” by the New Orleans poet Mary Trimble Reiley. She is lamenting the sad state of her defeated homeland.
Wouldst thou see Louisiana?
By the ‘murm’ring Mexic Sea’
Lonely and sad and desolate
And beautiful sits she.
. . . .
And so Louisiana,
By the ‘murm’ring Mexic Sea,’
Sits clothed about in garments fair;
But who so sad as she?
The name Mexic Sea appeared in several other places, but here is one I think especially happy, from the Alabama poet Charles D. Hudgins. He was apostrophizing the Texas city of Velasco around 1900, and although his picture of that city may be rather rosy, I think his prosody is fine.
“The loveliest flower that ever bloomed beside the Mexic sea.”