“Ours is a story-telling culture here in Arkansas and in the South. We lose touch with our stories, our eccentricities, our characters, and we lose track with ourselves.”
—Editorial in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette,
February 14, 2000
Back in 1981 I was laid off from the French translator-editorial assistant position that had brought me to Tulsa four years earlier in 1977. While I was searching for a new job, preferably back home, I wrote up several articles in an attempt to persuade the Arkansas newspapers to allow me to write a regular column titled Arkansiana.
In my file cabinet, in a frayed and torn manila envelope, handwritten in ink and titled Jimmy’s Writings, I still have those original articles and the column proposal, all of which I wrote on erasable bond paper and typed on an old 1936 Underwood standard typewriter. (For more about that old typewriter and the copyediting job I eventually used it on, see my earlier post titled “My Mother’s Bible.”)
Needless to say, the newspapers in Arkansas did not accept my column proposal. (Here is one of the actual rejection letters I received at the time.)
Over the next four weeks I will present these short pieces, one each week. Although some parts of them are now outdated or even inaccurate, I have left them pretty much as they were originally written. I have merely retyped them on the computer and slightly edited them to correct some minor copyediting errors.
I hope they will be of some interest since they are not merely factual information about Arkansas history and culture (which are themselves fascinating subjects), but, like the rest of the entries on this blog, are actually reflections of the humor and nostalgia of that period of my life in spite of my failure to “write my way back home.”
The Name of Arkansas
I love the girl from Arkansaw
Who can saw more wood than her maw can saw
And can saw much more wood than her paw can saw
In the grand new State of Arkansaw.
—Anonymous Old Rhyme
“It is, indeed, in the name of Arkansas that we come at last upon something unique. No other State name gives rise to debate about its pronunciation and its spelling. No other can be so easily fitted with burlesque rhymes. No other has a variant spelling—‘Arkansaw’—conventionally used in humorous references.
“It is useless to speculate upon what the reputation of Arkansas would have been if the State had been named not after the Akanças [Indians] but after any one of their four or five component tribes—the Quapas, the Southouis, the Tongingas, the Tourimas, or the Zautoouys.”
So concludes James Masterson in his book Arkansas Folklore (The Arkansas Traveler, Davy Crockett, and other Legends, Rose Publishing Company, Little Rock, Arkansas, 1974).
[Note: The Quapaws were forced to leave their Arkansas home and move to what is now Oklahoma. They have a land allotment in the far northeast corner of the state near the borders of Missouri and Kansas. Some years ago I read that there were only four native speakers of Quapaw left and they were aged. The Wikipedia Web site notes that attempts are being made to preserve the Quapaw language]
The “debate” to which he [Masterson] refers about the proper spelling and pronunciation of Arkansas has been going on for a good long while and still seems to crop up occasionally even today.
By coincidence, this past week my fifth-grader son [Keiron, who is now forty-two years old] told us at the supper table that one of his classmates had asked in class why Arkansas was pronounced “Arkansaw” when it was spelled like Kansas.
The well-intentioned, but sadly misinformed, substitute teacher “instructed” her young charges that it was because “Arkansas was once part of Kansas and what’s why it’s spelled like that.” (Say it ain’t so, Joe, say it ain’t so!)
Don’t you believe it! The truth, of course, is that Arkansas (as a territory or state) has never been “part of Kansas,” nor even remotely connected to it. The similarity of their names is by pure chance, if not by pure luck.
In fact, the word “Arkansas” is derived from the French name for a group of Indians (the Arkansa) who lived near where the Arkansas River empties into the Mississippi [near my hometown in Southeast Arkansas].
Being French, the plural form of this word would be “Arkansas,” the final “s” being added in writing to show plurality but not pronounced. This particular aspect of French grammar posed no problem as long as the territory in question belonged to France.
However, after the United States government purchased the whole Louisiana Territory (of which Arkansas was a part) in 1803, things began to change. When the first Americans began to pour into the Arkansas area the “un-American” spelling caused obvious pronunciation difficulties and differences of opinion on both spelling and pronunciation.
William E. Woodruff, founder and editor of the Arkansas Gazette, the first newspaper in the territory (established at Arkansas Post in 1819 and later called “the oldest newspaper west of the Mississippi”), was a staunch advocate of the “-s” spelling. It was largely through his determined effort that this form eventually won out, leaving the “Arkansaw” variation to be adopted for humorous purposes, usually derogatory.
This “Arkansas” spelling, however, led many well-meaning but badly misinformed people (such as our dear substitute teacher) to assume that the name was related to, or even derived from “Kansas.” The result was a long and sometimes bitter dispute reaching such proportions that the Arkansas Legislature felt compelled in 1881 to decide the issue once and for all by official action [which no other state has ever taken], to wit:
(Concurrent Resolution of Senate and House of General Assembly of the State of Arkansas 1881). BE IT RESOLVED BY BOTH HOUSES OF THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY. That the only true pronunciation of the name of the State, in the opinion of this body, is that received by the French from the native Indians, and committed to writing in the French word representing the sound; that it should be pronounced in three syllables, with the final “s” silent, the “a” in each syllable with the Italian sound, and the accent on the first and last syllables—being the pronunciation formerly, universally, and now still commonly used, and the pronunciation with the accent on the second syllable with the sound of “a” in man, and the sounding of the terminal “s” is an innovation to be discouraged.
In other words, while it is spelled “Arkansas,” it is pronounced “AR-kan-saw” and not “Ar-KAN-ziz”!
Next week: “But why is it pronounced that way?”