Shortly after I posted the recent article about abalorio, a friend wrote to say that the word reminded her of abalone—to which I couldn’t resist replying that that was okay as long as the posting didn’t seem like a [lot of] baloney. With those foody references still in mind, today I’d like to bite, etymologically speaking, into abalone, which the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica said was “used in California for various species of the shell-fish of the Haliotidae family, with a richly coloured shell yielding mother-of-pearl. This sort of Haliotis is also commonly called ‘ear-shell,’ and in Guernsey ‘ormer’ (Fr[ench] ormier, for oreille de mer).” Like the French, which translates as ‘sea ear,’ Spanish can also describe the abalone with an ear-related metaphor, as the Velasquez® Spanish and English Dictionary does when it explains the English word as an ‘oreja marina, molusco gasterópodo, común en la costa de California.’ The Encyclopedia Britannica was even more precise: “The abalone shell is found especially at Santa Barbara and other places on the southern Californian coast, and when polished makes a beautiful ornament. The mollusc itself is often eaten, and dried for consumption in China and Japan.”
Of course California was once a part of Mexico, which means it was was once a Spanish colony, so we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that in the middle of the 1800s English borrowed the word abalone from American Spanish, where the form was and still is abulón. As with abalorio, abulón wasn’t originally Spanish. According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, it came from Costanoan, a family of American Indian languages spoken along the coast of California. The original Indian term aluan referred to ‘red abalone.’
Those primarily interested in etymology can stop here, but for fans of ethnography I’ll add that many American Indian tribes used shells, including the various types of abalone, as a form of money. I’ll also append a passage from an unsigned 1873 article on “Aboriginal Shell-Money” in The Overland Monthly magazine; the article may say as much about the culture of the Americans quoted as about the Indians described.
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman
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Among the Moädocs, or Modocs, “when a maiden arrives at womanhood, her father makes a kind of party in her honor. Her young companions assemble, and together they dance and sing wild, dithyrambic roundelays, improvised songs of the woods and the waters:
“‘Jumping echoes of the rock;
Squirrels turning somersaults;
Green leaves, dancing in the air;
Fishes white as money-shells,
Running in the water, green, and deep, and still.
Hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hay!
Hi-ho, hi-ho, hi-hay !’
This is the substance of one of the songs, as translated for me.”
Among the Yocuts, another California tribe, whose dominion covers “the Kern and Tulare basins, and the middle San Joaquin,” etc., “their money consists of the usual shell-buttons, and a string of them reaching from the point of the middle finger to the elbow is valued at twenty-five cents. A section of bone very white and polished, about two and a half inches long, is sometimes strung on the string, and rates at a ‘bit.’ They always undervalue articles which they procure from Americans. For instance, goods which cost them at the store $5, they sell among themselves for $3.”
We have no authentic data as to whether the value of the shell-money, properly so called, among the California Indians and those farther north, was graduated by the color, or whether they generally used other than the hya-qua or állicochick (Dentalia), which are white and have a shining surface; for though, as above, “periwinkles” and “fancy marine-shells” are mentioned as used in trade, these may have been regarded more as articles of ornamentation, and esteemed among the interior Indians, particularly, as precious, the same as diamonds and fine jewelry are among civilized people. In this view, the interior Indians of California are probably not unlike the more southern Indians of New Mexico, for a friend of ours (Dr. Edward Palmer, of the Smithsonian Institution) informed us a few years ago, that while traveling in that territory he was witness to a trade wherein a horse was purchased of one Indian by another, the price paid being a single specimen of the pearly ear-shell (Haliofis rufescens), or common California redback abalone or aulon.