Word Traveler: Alaska and Hawaii

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

Alaska and Hawaii are found in the "enlarged scale detail inset" boxes of a United States' map. When it became the 49th state on January 3, 1959, Alaska increased the nation's size by nearly 20 percent and added lots of cold and glaciers. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii became the 50th U.S. state and added 6,459 square miles of tropical heat and volcanic islands.

Alaska's name comes from Inuit alakshak "great land, mainland" and it was spelled Alyaskat on the first Russian maps of the territory. Administered by the Russian American Company from 1799, it was known as Russian America. The region was sold by Russia to the US in 1867 for $7.2 million when it quickly became known as Seward's Folly; William H. Seward was the American Secretary of State who arranged the purchase. The purchase price was high at the time and many thought we had become burdened with territory which we had no population to fill. It was called the Territory of Alaska in 1912, until granted statehood.

Hawaii was called the Sandwich Islands until the late 19th century. Captain James Cook discovered the islands in 1778 (though they were already known to Spanish sailors in the 16th century) in honor of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. Its native name, Hawaiki or Owyekee means "homeland" or it may be from the Polynesian Owhyii "Place of the Gods," referring to the two volcanoes, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, on the island of Hawaii.

Sometimes you will see a diacritical mark called an okina inserted in the word Hawaii and other Hawaiian names, usually between repeated vowels (Hawai'i) but sometimes between vowels not repeated (O'ahu). This accent marks a glottal stop, a sharp guttural break that prevents a diphthong. The okina is part of the Hawaiian language, which has only 12 letters - the shortest alphabet in the world: A, E, I, O, U and H, K, L, M, N, P, W. Until the 1820s, it was only a spoken language and now it is nearly extinct.

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