How Opa-locka got its name

View of a white building with a dome and tower, resembling a mosque, with palms and a live oak in the foreground.

Opa-locka City Hall. The Moorish architecture has been typical of the city since its founding by aviator Glenn Curtiss in 1926. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Locator map of Opa-locka, FloridaOpa-locka is a small city in the Miami metropolitan area of south Florida.

Its unusal name is supposed to have an Indian or “Native American” origin. But there is no documentation for the name before about 1926. That’s when the aviator Glenn Curtiss founded the city, during the 1920s craze for Florida real estate.1

When Curtiss first scouted the site, he was told that its “Indian name” was “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” He shortened this to “Opa Locka,” which sounded vaguely “Arabic-Persian” to him. This was the era of wildly popular “Arab” movies such as The Sheik and The Thief of Bagdad. So Curtiss dressed up Opa-locka in fanciful Moorish style to match the mood of the time.

The original name of the site almost certainly comes from the Creek/Seminole language. Most likely, it was Vpelofv rakko (“up-pee-LO-fa THLA-ko”), meaning “big hummock.” A hummock (or hammock) is an area of raised land within a swamp.2

The Seminole Indians were nearly all forced out of Florida by the mid-1800s, and those who remained were confined to two reservations. The English speakers who replaced them probably pronounced the name of the future Opa-locka as something like “Opalofa-locko.”

But by the mid-1920s, when Curtiss found out about it, the name had been corrupted to “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.”

Disclaimer

There is no way to be certain about the origin of “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” Because of the gap in time, and the apparent lack of evidence for any name before 1926, all we can do is speculate about the prior history.

All I’m offering is informed speculation. We can be sure that “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka” comes from Seminole, which is closely related to Creek. (Seminole and Creek differ only in pronunciation and vocabulary, like American English and British English.) And we know that the name already existed when Glenn Curtiss arrived on the scene. He didn’t invent the name from scratch or borrow it from some other part of the country.3

By the way, the authoritative Dictionary of Creek/Muskogee derives Opa-locka from the same source as the name of Opelika, Alabama, viz., opel’ rakko, “big swamp.” But this hypothesis overlooks the evidence of the long version of the name, “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.”

Besides, local traditions are remarkably consistent about the meaning of the original name. They all describe a hummock, or elevated ground within a swamp, rather than the swamp itself. We can never be sure, but vpelov rakko seems much more likely than opel’ rakko to be the original Seminole name.

Corruption of the name

So how did we get from Seminole vpelofv-rakko to English “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka”?

Once the name Vpelofv-rakko was translated into English sounds, it lost its semantic meaning, becoming a sequence of nonsense syllables. One nonsense syllable is as good as another. So as the name was transmitted orally, it became further corrupted in a series of steps we can only guess at now.

First, the final “o” was probably turned into a shwa, giving us “Opalofa-locka.”

Next, the “lofa-locka” sequence may have caused confusion among some speakers. Was it “Opa-lofa-locka” or “Opa-locka-lofa”? Someone must have substituted an entirely different sound for one of the troublesome syllables, and we had “Opa-tisha-locka.”

Next, someone may have remembered the final “locka” as “wocka,” leading to more confusion. Which was correct, “Opa-tisha-wocka” or “Opa-tisha-locka”?

Someone resolved this by stringing together both versions: “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” That’s the version heard by Glenn Curtiss in the mid-1920s.4

Translations

Since the city was established, local writers have suggested ever more elaborate translations of “Opa-tisha-wocka-locka.” Besides the most plausible meaning, “big hummock,” one finds the following prosy variants:

  • “big island in the swamp covered with many trees” 5
  • “a dry place in the swamp with trees” 6
  • “the high land north of the little river on which there is a camping place” 7

All of these appear to be elaborations on “big hummock,” a plain translation of vpelofv rakko.

So there you have it. To see how pedantic I am capable of becoming on this subject, click through to my work page on the derivation of “Opa-locka,” in my personal userspace at Wikipedia.

Notes

1 Glenn Curtiss was a celebrity in the early 20th century due to his exploits at designing and building motorcycles and airplanes. Curtiss founded an aircraft company and sold planes to the U.S. Navy. In the 1920s Curtiss jumped into the Florida land boom, founding or co-founding the cities of Hialeah, Opa-locka, and Miami Springs. Opa-locka, with its fanciful Moorish architecture, opened the same year as the 1926 film The New Klondike, which spoofed the Florida craze. A hurricane also roared ashore in south Florida that year, causing serious damage to Opa-locka. 
2 In IPA transcription: |əpi’lofə’ɬako| And for those who don’t already know: A swamp differs from a marsh in that a swamp has trees, but a marsh has grass. You might say a swamp is a forest with wet feet. 
3 Local historians all agree that the name antedates Curtiss’s interest in the place. Probably the first monograph about the city is Frank S. Fitzgerald-Bush, A dream of Araby: Glenn H. Curtiss and the founding of Opa-locka (Opa-locka, Fla.: South Florida Archaeological Museum, 1976). More recently, Opa-locka comes under discussion in Jan Nijman, Miami: mistress of the Americas (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), p. 27. 
4 This is pure speculation, of course. For another sequence of corruptions, see my work page on this topic at Wikipedia. 
5 See, among others: Larry Luxner, “Opa-locka rising,” Saudi Aramco World (Sept./Oct. 1989): 2-7. 
6 See, among others: U.S. Rep. Kendrick B. Meek, “80th anniversary of the founding of the city of Opa-locka, Florida,” Congressional Record 152 (part 7) (May 2006), p. 8922. 
7 This one appeared in some Miami Herald ad supplements and, in nearly identical wording, in Nieuwsbrief van de FAK, a newsletter from a Belgian arts faculty. Not one of the unique elements — “little river,” “north,” or “camping place” — is linguistically plausible. K.U. Leuven Association: Associated Faculty of Arts and Architecture (FAK), “A tale to be retold – Chevy Ridin High – Defining Place, Naming Place,” Nieuwsbrief van de FAK (March 2011): 4–7 [PDF]

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