Originally published Jun 28, 2010

There used to be a not-for-profit credit union in the Seattle area called Group Health Credit Union, named after a local nonprofit health care system. They’ve changed their name to Salal.

This is a name that might have great positive associations for some and leave the rest of us scratching our heads. Salal is the name of a shrub that’s popular in the Pacific Northwest. It has tough shiny leaves, pink blossoms in the spring, and edible purple berries in the late summer. (Actually, they’re technically fleshy sepals, or flower parts.) King County (the county where Seattle is) calls it “the single best ground cover for northwest gardens”. So, it might give gardeners a warm, fuzzy feeling. And the strange sound of the name might not seem so strange to people who are used to place names like Sammamish, Snoqualmie, Issaquah, and others that come from the original languages spoken in the Pacific Northwest.

The word salal is derived from Chinook Jargon, a trade language based on Chinook that was used widely in the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s. But if you’re not familiar with the plant, the name Salal is likely to seem like Arabic, as James Callan (@scarequotes) pointed out on Twitter. The Name Inspector, not much of a gardener himself, must confess to having been ignorant of the plant and puzzled by the name. Salal doesn’t appear to be an actual Arabic word, but there’s a municipality in Qatar called Umm Salal, and there are people with the surname Salal. The Arabic flavor of Salal seems to come from the sequence -al-, which is very common in transliterated Arabic, being one way to write the definite article (as in Al-Qaeda, which can be transated as ‘the base’). Also, after the vowel that appears twice in this word, the English /l/ sound gets velarized–pronounced in the back of the throat–which might remind people of the voiced velar and pharyngeal fricatives that English-hearing ears find so distinctive in Arabic. 

This seems like a risky rename. Maybe the reference to a local plant is meant to make people in these parts feel like they’re part of a special in group. Others, however, will feel left out.

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