DEL MAR — Lou Stein, 79, is a name detective. The Hillcrest resident and former Kearny High teacher has spent the past 47 years doggedly tracking down clues in dark basements of libraries, in telephone books, and in talking to a handful of longtime residents and old Indians in remote areas of San Diego's back country. His search is for elusive clues to the origins of names.
The fruits of his extensive research are in his two books, "San Diego County Place Names," first published in 1975 by Tofua Press of Leucadia and now in its fourth edition, and "Clues to Our Family Names," published in 1986 by Heritage Books. He also shares his findings with San Diego public school classes and senior citizen groups through 80 lectures a year.
Stein is one of the nation's few onomastics (one who studies names), and his fascination with the subject is a love affair that goes back to early childhood.
"At the age of 8, I was so excited when our family got a big, unabridged dictionary that I vowed to learn a new word every day and use it," he said.
By the time he started high school, he was a history buff. Then came a magic moment that sparked his lifelong interest in names.
"I discovered Charles Bardsley's 1889 classic, 'English Surnames.' The book made history come alive for me and taught me how names are living history lessons."
That led Stein to plunge into the telephone book and city directory with a whole new, exciting realization that the names of people, streets and places listed are "echoes of the ancient voices of our ancestors creating an identity for themselves and their habitat."
When Stein left Cleveland and came to San Diego in 1941 to be a teacher, he naturally looked into the origins of local place names and soon realized how little research had been done on the subject.
"During my teaching career, I did a lot of library research on local names during the weekends," he said. "But I didn't have the extra time to find local pioneers or their descendants to really learn firsthand how a lot of San Diego County place names originated. I finally was able to do that when I retired in 1971, but by then many of the old-timers who had such direct knowledge were dead.
"I wish I would have had the time to hunt these people down when I first started this search in the '40s. I could have gotten a much more complete record."
The most frustrating part of the project was his field work in finding old Indians who might know about the origin of native place names.
"I'd spend months trying to track down the right Indian tribal leaders who I heard might have some clues," Stein said. "But most of my searches ended up in dead ends, and I was very disappointed to learn that Indians here did not keep written records or have much knowledge of tribal history."
He did manage to find and interview 90 local pioneers and Indians who provided interesting insights and new information on San Diego names.
The Jewel Came Later
"People in La Jolla are not going to like this," he said with a mischievous grin, "but the name 'La Jolla' comes from the native Indian 'Hoya,' which means 'place near the hole or cave,' not from the Spanish word 'joya' which means 'jewel.'
"It was first coined 'Jewel of the Pacific' by an enterprising real estate salesman in the 1880s, who used that term in newspaper ads he placed in Eastern cities, trying to lure prospective clients to buy his lots in La Jolla."
With a hearty laugh, Stein added that the original Indian name for San Diego was "Wee-ilsh-nee-wah," referring to its harborside area, which translates as "place of many fleas." Stein added that Capt. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, when he first sailed into the San Diego harbor on Sept. 28, 1542, named it "San Miguel," because it was that saint's feast day. When explorer Vizcaino arrived here 60 years later, he named it "San Diego" in honor of the feast day of San Diego de Alcala de Henares.
"Either Vizcaino was ignorant of Cabrillo's name designation," Stein said, "or he was after personal glory by pretending to have discovered a new harbor. I personally like the native Indian designation best."
Stein found that Tijuana's first name was "Teguan," Spanish for "place of frogs near big water," so named by the Portola expedition of 1769. An 1833 Mexican document spells it as "Tiguan" and then, for some reason, Americans called it "Tia Juana" which means "Aunt Jane." When the modern San Ysidro town site was first constructed in the 1870s, Stein said, its developers first named it "Tia Juana" as well. But it was soon changed to its current name after a "San Ysidro" (Spanish for Saint Isadore) ranch just across the border in Mexico.
The name expert also discovered that such local place names as Bostonia, Arkansas Canyon, Alpine, Cardiff and Monserate Mountain reflected the nostalgia that some early settlers felt for the homes they had left behind.
Any Old Thing