BOCA RATON, Fla. - Whenever Boca Raton Mayor Susan Whelchel hears the second part of her city's name sounding like it rhymes with "baton" rather than evoking the "tone-y" place it is, she cringes.
It's happening with increasing frequency these days, with "Boca Raton" on the lips of journalists worldwide since the final presidential debate in the city. Even CNN's Candy Crowley, moderator of the second debate, pronounced it like "rattan" when she announced Boca as the site of the next debate — in front of an audience estimated at 65.7 million.
Turns out, the city passed an ordinance in 1982 trying to put a stop to such misspeaking.
"Maybe we should pass another ordinance, saying 'We'll put you in jail like Al Capone if you don't say it like 'Boca Raton,'" Mayor Whelchel joked.
But this is not a settled matter. Spanish-speakers will say it's the "rah-tone" pronunciation that's wrong.
More people, at least, are looking into it. Hits to the Boca Raton Historical Society's web site skyrocketed to 1,785 the day of the debate alone — 97 percent of what the site gets in an average month. And 98 percent of those who clicked that day went to the page explaining the name.
Luckily, this year, the historical society added an 11-page paper to its website explaining the origins of the city's name. The paper was the culmination of Boca Raton resident Humberto Ruiz's three-year odyssey, which included a trip to Spain.
"I knew the debate was coming up and all of the world was going to say, 'What is this weird name?'" Ruiz said.
This is no Hallandale Beach or Coral Springs, after all.
"Boca Raton" is Spanish and, even though "boca" translates to "mouth," it has nothing to do with the mouth of a rat, unlike the popular perception. And Ruiz says it's not a "thieves inlet" either, as it is on the website of the city and the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce.
Ruiz went right to the Royal Spanish Academy in Madrid and found ample evidence that it was named after an archaic nautical term for "rocky inlet." Those christening this part of the New World were navigators, after all. And the submerged, jagged rocks present the same hazard to ships as rodents chewing away at the hull, Ruiz explained.
But the officially sanctioned pronunciation — rah-tone — is the first lesson that Boca Raton Historical Society Curator Susan Gillis learned when she started her job 10 years ago and the most oft-repeated bit when she answers the phone. And it's an ironic one, considering that the city was so named because of a mapmaker's error.
"Sometime in the 19th century, the name got slapped onto our lake," she said.
The first "Boca Raton," according to 18th century maps, was actually near Biscayne Bay, off Miami Beach, while the present-day location of the city was called Rio Seco, or "dry river," Gillis said. She said she's seen a later map showing "Boca Raton," in two places.
Why the northern version of Boca Raton survived onto 20th century maps and the other didn't remains a mystery, however.
In another twist, "Boca Raton," was spelled "Boca Ratone" in its first incorporation in 1924. But when it was re-incorporated the following year, the "e" was missing.
Gillis said she thinks it might have something to do with the influence of the city's chief developer Addison Mizner — he dropped the "e" for his subdivision. But Mayor Whelchel is thinking that's just what the city ought to return to — for more accurate mentions.
But then again, Boca Raton's uniqueness has its function, she said.
"It separates the originals from those who are not from here," she joked. "We can always tell."
But Ruiz, a Boca accountant, joked that he'll be lobbying his council member to pass another ordinance with the correct way to say "Boca Raton" — closer to its Spanish origins.
"Why would you want to take something in the original language and give it a twist?" he asked. "Maybe they wanted to Anglicize it."
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