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A group of Australian scientists from the University of Sydney have undiscovered an island that was supposed to be in between Australia and New Caledonia.

Sandy Island showed up on Google Earth and Google Maps, as well as marine and scientific maps all over the world, including the US National Geophysical Data Center. According to the maps, Sandy Island was about 16 miles long and 3 miles wide – just slightly bigger than Manhattan.

Geologists on the Southern Surveyor, an Australian maritime research vessel, were puzzled by the island which appeared on their weather maps, yet navigation charts showed that the water in that area was very deep – 1400 metres (4620 feet). They decided that they had to go check it out, and found nothing there except sea. The scientists recorded the information so that maps can be changed.

According to the Wikipedia article on Sandy Island, the island was erased from Google Maps on November 26, but although the name Sandy Island doesn’t show up in the search bar, when I looked in the Coral Sea I found the phantom island quite easily, but there was no name attached to it.

If I zoomed in on the island, it simply disappeared, and if I switched to satellite, the island showed up as a black streak surrounded by blue streaks, looking remarkably like someone had scribbled on it with two different felt-tip pens.

Interestingly, if Sandy Island had existed, it would have been in French territorial waters – and the island is not on any recent French government charts. Perhaps because of this, the Times Atlas of the World deleted Sandy Island from its maps after 1999.

The history of the discovery of Australia involved – indeed, was dependent onfaulty maps, necessitating voyages to check out what was here or not, so it makes a strange sort of sense that now Australians must voyage forth to check faulty maps for themselves.

The episode shows that this part of the world is still not well known, and incompletely charted. It’s not quite a matter of Here be dragons, but the reply from most of the map-providers when the error was pointed out was along the lines of, Well it is in the middle of nowhere

Tens of thousands of years of human occupation, and centuries since the first mapping, and we’re still close to the middle of nowhere. Which is rather exciting – what else in our region is still waiting to be discovered, or undiscovered?

Apart from the Pythonesque nuttiness of this story (no wonder the geologists got the giggles as they sailed through the invisible island), the thing that got my attention was the name Sandy, which has been in the news internationally since Hurricane Sandy hit the north-east coast of the United States in late October, after devastating the Caribbean.

According to this article in The New York Times, names of hurricanes can help to influence the way we name our babies. It’s not as simple as everyone suddenly choosing Sandy as a baby name, but it seems that once we hear a word or a name many times, we instinctively like names that sound similar to it. So experts are expecting a spike in the numbers of babies of 2012 whose names begin with an S, as well as those with an and sound in them, and ones that end in -ee.

There was a story in the Australian press, about an expat couple in New York, whose baby arrived at the height of Sandy’s fury. The parents did consider calling their new daughter Sandy, but in the end chose Sophie. The analysts would be rubbing their hands, because they chose a two-syllable name that starts with S and ends with an -ee sound, just like Sandy.

Sandy is a unisex name which is short for Alexander or Alexandra, but also for any name related to them, such as Alistair, Sander, Alessandra, Sanette, Sandrine, or Sandra. You could use it as a short form of Cassandra, Santos, Sanford, Sandon, Santiago or any similar name. Sandy is a traditional pet name for people with reddish or sandy-blonde hair, and you could see it as a vocabulary, colour, and nature name meaning “sand-coloured, like sand, covered in sand”.

However, another possibility occurred to me while reading about The Case of the Non-Existent Island. On a French chart from 1875, the island is called Île de Sables, which is French for Sandy Island. Because of this, The Times Atlas of the World partly Anglicised the name back again to Sable Island.

While in French, sable means “sand”, the same word in English means something quite different. (I feel that I must be channelling Lou from Mer de Noms, who quite often finds name inspiration in French words). I should point out that the two words are said differently: in French, SAH-bluh; in English, SAY-buhl.

A sable is a species of marten (a relative of minks, weasels and ferrets) which is found mostly in Eurasia and still hunted in Russia. The pelt of the animal has been highly valued since medieval times, because the fur of the sable feels soft whichever way you stroke you; it’s not possible to “go against the grain”.

Because of the animal’s colour, the word sable is also a literary way to say “black”, such as when John Milton refers to “a sable cloud” in Paradise Lost. It amuses me that sandy and sable are opposites as colours, with one signifying a pale shade and the other one that is very dark.

Sable can also be used as a personal name, with the first one I can find in the records dating to the 17th century. It’s used for both boys and girls, although from the beginning more often a female name – maybe because it seems like it could be short for names such as Isabel or Sabella.

Sable is more common in the United States, where it has sometimes been used amongst African-Americans as a positive and beautiful word to denote darkness (similar to the name Ebony, which doesn’t have that connotation here).

In Australia, it appears rarely in the records, nearly always as a female name. One of my favourite combinations for this name was Brightie Sable. It also belonged to a 1900s French immigrant to Australia, who had the French form – Sablé.

So if you feel subconsciously influenced to use a name similar to Sandy, or would like to be part of a name trend, then Sable or Sablé seem like possibilities to choose from, and may please trend analysts immensely.

(Satellite image from Google Maps)

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