Adventures in Franglais – the State of Oregon

La syllabe perdue.
{The lost syllable.}

My home state of Oregon was in the news earlier this year when a group of militia from bordering state Nevada crossed the border. A number of mèmes began to appear on the internet comparing a pentagon, hexagon, octagon to Oregon. There is even an add online for a T-shirt with the Pentagon, hexagon Oregon joke. But somehow I don’t think many people in Oregon will have bought the T-shirt.

Statue of a man with an umbrella in Portland.
Statue of a man with an umbrella in Portland.

It’s not that we Oregonians can’t laugh at ourselves. It’s just that the joke doesn’t make sense in Oregon.

The problem with this joke is that it only really works on the East Coast where Oregon is pronounced with three syllables “or-re-gone”. On the west coast “Oregon” is pronounced with two syllables “ore-gun” or “ore-gin” (with a hard ‘g’). Hexagon just doesn’t rhyme with ore-gin.

The extra syllable used to confuse me. I’d watch the news or a talk show from New York and hear about a place called “Or-re-gone” which seemed strangely failure and yet I couldn’t quite place it. It sounded like some kind of Italian spice or something. But then I’d realize it was Oregon with an extra syllable.

The hidden message in the title spells out CAT.
The hidden message in the title spells out CAT.

One of my favorites movies is to “To Catch a Thief” in which Carry Grant, a retired cat-burglar John Robie In the movie John Robie pretends to be from Portland Oregon. I still remember the commercial advertising when “To Catch a Thief” was going to play on a Portland TV station as the movie of the week. The commercial was a montage of Grant, who was from Manchester England and had a very charming blend of English and American accent, had a very unique pronunciation of Portland, Oregon that was all his own.

No one is quite sure where the name Oregon comes from. It’s not a Native American name. It is believed to be Anglicized French.

With respect to the Native peoples that had been living in the Pacific North West, Oregon it seems was first made known to the rest of the world by explores that traveled by ship to the Pacific Ocean.

Many of the early explorers were Spanish and British.  Spanish explorer sighted what would later be named Oregon in 1543. In 1579, Sir Frances Drake sheltered in Oregon’s Nehalem Bay (85 miles {137 Km} west of where Portland would one day be located). In 1778 Captain James Cook also explored the Oregon Coast.

The French exploration of Oregon is harder to track. There is evidence of a French Canadians leaving behind French place names; Malheur River and Malheur Lake (Malheur is French for Misfortune).

In my teens I canoed down the Deschutes river. A river full of falls and rapids. I didn’t realize it then but Deschutes is French for “falls”.

Chances are the French Canadian explorers would have entered the state from the North or from the coast by ship. If you have ever been to the Oregon coast you will find it very very windy.

Windsurfing in the Columbia River Gorge by Alex Kerney
Windsurfing in the Columbia River Gorge by Alex Kerney

The Columbia River gorge up near Portland is considered to be one of the best wind surfing spots in the world because of the consistently high wind that blow in from the ocean.



Maverick - TV Series 1957–1962
Maverick – TV Series 1957–1962

“Wild as the wind in Oregon, blowin’ up a canyon, Easier to tame. Maverick is the name.”

Lyrics to the TV show Maverick
by Paul Francis Webster
(from New York)


The Maverick lyrics also confused me as a child as Oregon isn’t really known for its canyons. But I guess the Columbia River gorge could be a shallow canyon. But for a real canyon one needs to go east to Idaho’s Snake River canyon.

Most of the population of Oregon lives in the protective Willamette Valley formed by the Coastal and Cascade mountain ranges. We get a lot of rain but the mountains protect us from the winds that hammer the coast almost constantly.

Oregon doesn’t really have hurricanes. However it would be understandable that the early French explores who tried to sail up the Columbia River the wind seemed like a hurricane.

The French word for hurricane is «ouragan» pronounced ‘ore-a-gon ’.

And there it is the extra syllable!

It is believed by many that Oregon gets it’s name from the French word «ouragan».

Perhaps our friends on the East Coast aren’t mispronouncing the state’s name, they are just using an earlier pronunciation. For generations the extra syllable has been past orally from one generation to the next never changing.

Where as in Oregon, where people have to say the states name almost every day, to save time shortcuts have been taken and the middle syllable has been dropped like the final ”t” in Monet.

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