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On the origin of the name Krakatau

To this day the origin of the name Krakatau remains uncertain.

The earliest mention of Krakatau by name in the western world was on a 1602 map, created by Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer (ca. 1534 - 1606), who labelled the island 'Pulo Carcata' (pulo is the Sundanese word for 'island'). In the years that followed a series of variants of the name have been found, such as Crackatouw, Cracatoa, Rakata and Krakatao (in an older Portuguese-based spelling). The latter is the origin of the English version Krakatoa.
The first known appearance of the spelling Krakatau was by a Dutch docter Wouter Schouten in his travelogue, who passed by 'the high tree-covered island of Krakatau' in October 1658[1].

Linguist Van den Berg recites a story that the name Krakatau was the result of a linguistic error. According to a legend, an Indian prince passed through the straits between Java and Sumatra. Observing the island, he inquired its name. The vessels master replied, ”Kaga tau" — a Jakartan and Betawinese slang phrase meaning "I don't know"[2]. But that story is very likely not true.

The word 'Krakatau' is possibly an onomatopoeia (a word that resembles the sound that it describes). However, there are probably two elements to it. Kerak in Sundanese means 'scream' or 'roar'. Also, Old Javanese krak, akrak and Balinese kerak all roughly have the same meaning. Another possibility is that 'Krakatau' derives form the Sanskrit krakańća, meaning 'saw' or 'sword', possibly describing the shape of the volcano as it was before the explosive eruption in 1883. Sanskrit is spoken in India, but krakaca is found in Malay as gergaji 'saw'. So it has made its way into local languages.

The second part of the name can possibly be related to modern Malay and Indonesian tua, meaning 'old'. Taken together we can surmise that the word 'Krakatau' originally meant 'old roar' or 'old saw'.

I wish to thank Medieval Indonesia for his invaluable input.

[1] Winchester: Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded – 2003
[2] Van den Berg: Vroegere berichten omtrent Krakatau. De uitbarsting van 1680 in Tijdschrift voor Indische Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde – 1884

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