Etymology of the name "Santa Ana winds", as revealed in the archives of the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

January, 2008.

Robert Fovell
UCLA Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences
rfovell _at_ ucla _dot_ edu

The Santa Ana winds are a cool season wind that blows from the desert, raising dust, fanning fires and, according to popular literature at least, making people crazy and homicidal. Santa Anas are always dry, a result of subsidence from their place of origin over the higher elevation Great Basin of Nevada and Utah. During the fall and early winter, the winds can also be quite hot as well, and are one of the reasons why September is the warmest month of the year in Los Angeles. Santa Anas blow episodically during the fall and winter season, but are most conspicuous (and important) in the September-November time frame, before the rains (when they deign to appear at all) typically start.

While the origin and cause of the Santa Ana winds are not in dispute, the origin of the name is. According to the most common and accepted explanation, the winds derive their name from the Santa Ana canyon of Orange County, south of Los Angeles and near the city of Santa Ana. However, many longtime residents insist that their "true" name is the "santana" winds which was subsequently corrupted into "Santa Ana" by Los Angeles' more recent arrivals. Is this possible? Did Angelenos used to use the term "santana" instead, or in preference to, "Santa Ana"?

One reasonable way of addressing this question is to research newspaper archives, as they represent the popular chronicle of the times. The Los Angeles Times started publication (as 'The Los Angeles Daily Times') in 1881. The first reference found to 'Santa Ana winds' in the paper appeared five years later, on Sept. 7, 1886, in a classified advertisement for property. Ranches consisting of "fine valley land", according to the ad, were offered, having "no fogs nor Santa Ana winds" and being "only 2 1/2 hours drive from the city." The parcels in question were apparently in the San Gabriel Valley and the depressing fact is that, despite the advance of technology and establishment of the world's most extensive network of freeways, San Gabriel is still 2.5 hours from "the city" on far too many days.

In 1893, the Times published a complaint from an Orange County resident concerning the "the misnaming of the winds which blow at times over almost all portions of Southern California, and which, unfortunately, in some sections of the southern portion of the State are erroneously called Santa Ana winds." The name, the writer insists, leads "nine out of every ten persons in the East" to conclude that the Santa Ana wind is "peculiar only to the immediate vicinity surrounding and contiguous to the city of Santa Ana." These winds are "an exceedingly unpleasant feature, especially in the fall before the rains have laid the dust." The writer recognizes that the winds "take the name of Santa Ana by reason of their passage through the Santa Ana mountain canyon, which is shaped very much like a large funnel" but insists it is "not a Santa Ana wind any more than it is a Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside or San Diego wind". "The name," the writer insists, is "a gross injustice" and "should no longer be used."

By any name, Santa Ana winds are apparently not all bad. Even the above complainant stipulated that "it is generally admitted that the winds are beneficial to health, purifying the atmosphere and destroying germs of disease." The second non-commercial reference to the "Santa Anas" was on Feburary 16, 1911, in an article about duck hunters. "Ducks like the fly to windward," the article reports, "and most gunners very much applaud this desire, as they can do good work on the birds." The gale-force Santa Anas render the birds stationary to the ground, making them easy prey for "gun pointers [who] cannot swing fast enough to out-guess a bird" under more ordinary conditions.

On November 27, 1933, the Times breathlessly declared that "Science Blasts Climate Belief" because Caltech scientists had just reported "sensational research that blasts to bits many choice weather theories." According to the scientists, Southern California doesn't owe its moderate climate to the nearby Pacific Ocean. Instead, credit is due to the mountains that ring Los Angeles and protect us from the cold desert air of winter, which can find its way to us only through the Cajon Pass. However, this mountain gap also acts as a "furnace" because air passing through it is subject to subsidence warming. If "a giant" were to block the Pass, they state, "the climate of the Los Angeles area would become like that of San Francisco."

According to the report, the scientists also claimed that "if this gash in the mountains were dammed up the orange industry would be ruined." It perhaps goes without saying there are few orange groves remaining in Orange County, so there are other effective ways of ruining that industry, and that a substantial citrus business thrives in California's Central Valley without the benefit of the desert winds. Also, while the desert wind "reaches the area surrounding Fontana and San Bernardino... and starts sprinting about in every direction," the Santa Anas also intrude into Southern California in other places as well.

Unfortunately for the locals who insist the winds are actually "Santanas" and that this name was subsequently corrupted into "Santa Ana", it is revealing that Times made few references to "santana winds" over the years, the first of which came only on November 18, 1956, in an short note about smog on Orange County. In 1981, Times writer Jack Smith wrote an article entitled "Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Ana" that directly addressed the naming controversy. He referred to an upcoming car to be dubbed the "Santana" as representing a "common but etymologically erroneous corruption of 'Santa Ana', the wind having been named for the Santa Ana mountains through which it blows down on our naked plain." Smith stated that 'Santa Ana' "is generally slurred by Spanish-speaking people to something like 'santana', and that, presumably, is why it is so often spelled that way."

Where did the "santana" story start? According to Times staff writer Bob Gettemy (May 7, 1967), it may have originated in or near Santa Ana itself. In 1902, he reported, a "Santa Ana Chamber of Commerce committee was formed to discourage the use of the term 'Santa Anas'" after the name was applied to "a particularly vicious windstorm" by a news wire service. "The committee took the position that the name of its city should not be synonymous with a wind and asked newspapers to cease and desist," he wrote, but "at the time there apparently were no other names extant except, perhaps, for some unprintable ones."

According to Gettemy, alternate terms soon appeared, including "santana", claimed to be derived from an Indian term for "devil wind" that the Spanish first altered into "Satanas" (Satan) and which was then subsequently corrupted into "Santa Ana". However, Gettemy notes, "a recognized authority on Indian language says no such word as Santana ever existed." Writers Smith and Gettemy also dismissed (in Smith's words) the "appealing but untrustworthy" story that they were somehow named for the Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna and the "dust storms kicked up" by his cavalry. "Santa Anna never operated in Southern California", Gettemy notes, and that he spelled his name with two n's anyway.

The Gettemy article also mentions another theory that is plausible at first blush. In 1933, a Naval commander named O. H. Holtman suggested that the winds may have been named for St. Anne's day, as "early Spanish explorers had a custom of naming places and events for the saint's day on which they happened or were discovered." (This was true for Caribbean tropical storms, certainly.) Gettemy related that historians don't support this theory "on the grounds a Santa Ana wind would not have been important to rate a name," among other reasons. The most compelling counterargument, however, was not mentioned in the article. Saint Anne's day is July 25, and a strong offshore wind is very unlikely to occur on this day, as the desert will still be quite hot at the time.

This sojourn through the archives of The Los Angeles Times will hardly settle the "Santa Ana" versus "santana" controversy. Perhaps it should not. Among our residents, these seasonal and occasionally dangerous winds bear two names, both unique to this area. The most proper meteorological term for these winds is "katabatic", which conjures up neither locale or evil. That term merely means "to flow downhill" in Greek, which by any other name is precisely what our downslope winds do.