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Archive for August, 2021

Catawba or Catalpa?

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

Judith Hanlon sent me an interesting question today: “Is it “catalpa or “catawba”? I’ve heard both, and seen both in print (gardening or fishing references), but “catawba” isn’t in any dictionary. Should it be?”

I responded the following:

Thank you for this question. These words have fascinated me for a long, long time.

Today these are two different words, both originating in the Carolinas in Siouan languages. One of those languages is the Catawba language spoken by the Catawba indians who once inhabited an area close to the North and South Carolinas border, along the—wouldn’t you just know it?—Catawba River.

It is also the name of a reddish-yellowish grape and the wine made from it. This name probably came from one of the sources above. I’m from central North Carolina and, as a teenager, loved to climb up grape vines to the tops of trees and eat “fox grapes”, a smaller reddish-yellowish wild grape, no doubt related to the catawba. Folks in central North Carolina also grew catawba grapes commercially.

Catalpa in the English language refers to something quite different. A catalpa tree is a broad-leafed tree with seeds that look like long beans. Down South in the spring they are attacked by caterpillars that make great freshwater fishing bait. Everyone in North Carolina mispronounced this word “catawba”.

We had one on the street where I was born and my mother loved to tell this story about me as a baby. She took me in her arms one day and visited the catalpa tree which was at that time filled with catalpa worms. She took one on to her finger to show it to me up close and, according to her, I said, “Go ‘way, Worm Beard!”

These two words may have historically been the same word, since in many dialects of English the L before a consonant is pronounced like a W. That is the case in eastern Pennsylvania and New Jersey. My sons grew up pronouncing milk [miwk], help [hewp], and belt [bewt]. Still do. Caulk everywhere is pronounce [cawk].

So, catawba and catalpa may, in fact, have originated as the same word pronounced differently in different parts of the country.