Posted by: Brad Nixon | November 14, 2018

Call Me Isthmus

I photographed the isthmus from the promontory today.

Catalina Isthmus Brad Nixon 2786 680

Granted, it’s not a particularly great photo — looking into the afternoon sun on a hazy day.

Can you blame me for shooting that picture just so I could write today’s lead-in? How often do you get to use “isthmus” and “promontory” in one sentence?

Here’s how the promontory looked today.

Point Fermin Brad Nixon 2785 680

Those views are along a route we walk at least once or twice a week. It takes us to Point Fermin Park, which projects into the Pacific Ocean a few miles from home. The isthmus is a low, narrow bit of of land on Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles to the southwest. Here’s a view of Catalina from a higher elevation on a clearer day.

IMG_0188 Santa Catalina Brad Nixon (640x473)

You can see the isthmus just to the right of the container ship out in the Santa Catalina Channel. It’s about 800 yards wide.

Catalina Island Map

Catalina Island Google

The isthmus connects the large northern (photo, right) and southern masses of Santa Catalina. There’s a small town there, named Two Harbors because there are harbors on either side of the isthmus, west and east windward and leeward, if you’re a sailor. Two Harbors is on the near, leeward side. On clear nights, you can see lights there from the mainland, although some of the town lies below the curve of the ocean’s surface at that distance.


Regular readers can already guess: etymology ahead.

After living in close proximity to one for 25 years, I finally looked into the origin of that unusual word, so difficult to pronounce, “isthmus.”

The derivation is almost disappointingly straightforward. Ancient Greek ἰσθμός — isthmós  meant “neck.” It’s a neck of land, a phrase familiar in English.

As for “promontory,” what seems rather self-evident is a bit deceptive. You’ll probably recognize it as stemming from a Latin word, thanks to the familiar Latin prefix, pro-: “forward” or “toward.”

But the other seemingly obvious component, “mont-,” which appears to be structurally related to Latin mons or mont “mount,” fooled me. Promontory originated from a verb, prominere, “to jut out.” The original Latin noun was promuntorium. Since promontories are elevated to some degree, it’s likely at some point the identification of mont with height altered the original spelling to substitute “o” for “u.”

Notable Examples

The only isthmus I learned about in school was the Isthmus of Panama, but there are many others. Aukland, New Zealand is on an isthmus. Others include the Isthmus of Kra in southern Thailand, the Isthmus of Suez (and the canal), the Karelian Isthmus in northwest Russia and the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, between the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, always a favorite here because of the Wallace Stevens poem, “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”

In that November off Tehuantepec
The slopping of the sea grew still one night
And in the morning summer hued the deck

I wrote a blog post with that title, and  unaware of the correspondence  illustrated it with a photo that included the Isthmus of Santa Catalina and duh, a sea surface full of clouds.

Santa Catalina Brad Nixon 1 (640x478)

How perfect is that?

Is there an isthmus near you? Please leave a comment. We’ll compile an authoritative Guide to Isthmuses! Merry isthmus, one and all.

P.S. Friend and former colleague Bill in Australia writes that Sydney’s famous Manly Beach lies along an isthmus north of the city. Another friend and former colleague, Niels, points out that the Netherlands — as one might expect — has many deltas and coastal lands that include isthmuses, the name for which in Dutch is landengte.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Maps © Google with my emendations. Isthmuses around the world information courtesy Wikipedia. Etymology from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, 2000, Houghton Mifflin Co., New York.


  1. Point Fermin Park – thanks for the memory of a nice visit I had there looking at the lighthouse which you’ve written about before 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome. The park’s still pleasant. The lighthouse is still looking its best from a spiffing-up a couple of years ago.


  2. Thanks, Melville.


    • You’re welcome. Had a whale of a time doing it.


      • Way too clever, captain. 👨‍✈️

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks to a bookmark at a Half-Price book store, my first impulse was to re-punctuate your title: “Call me, Isthmus.”

    I can’t say I know of any isthmuses; like you, I learned about the Isthmus of Panama, and that was it. On the other hand, names like Throg’s Neck are familiar. It’s only been in the past few years that I figured out what kind of neck was involved in those names.

    Promontories are more familiar, and I think more common in literature, if not in life. I suppose one of the most famous is from T.S. Eliot’s “The Dry Salvages,” from his Four Quartets:

    “Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
    Pray for all those who are in ships, those
    Whose business has to do with fish, and
    Those concerned with every lawful traffic
    And those who conduct them.”

    One thing’s certain — that’s a glorious photo you tucked in there at the end. It really is beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. A good day by the ocean — not that there are many bad ones for this Ohio kid who didn’t see an ocean until he was 12. Oof. The Quartets. Retro me. I’ll never make it through. Perhaps you can parcel them out to me a few lines at a time over the next 10 years, as you see fit!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice pictures. I believe I’ve seen some posts of yours that were photographed on Catalina Island. It must be very picturesque.


    • Yes, it is. An interesting place to visit, probably even more interesting to live out there. Thank you.


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