When compiling a crossword recently I had to check the spelling of Guatemala more than once as it never looked right as the answer to seven down. Having got these letters in the right order I found myself thinking more about the origins of this particular name, when I should have been filling in the rest of the clues and answers.
Hence I made a note to investigate this and other names and the result is an examination of the origins of the names of the countries of the Americas. Quite recently, at least on an etymological timescale, this was known as the ‘New World’ and thus all these names would clearly be among the most recent, or so I thought.
Antigua and Barbuda – discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493, Antigua was named after the church of Santa Maria la Antigua in Seville, Spain. Ironically the newly-discovered island (to the Europeans) was named after St Mary the Ancient. Barbuda was also named by Columbus, this meaning ‘bearded’. The earliest known inhabitants were the Arawak peoples, who knew the islands as Wa'ladli and Wa’Omoni respectively. The meaning of both names is unclear and thus are probably derived from personal names.
Argentina – when Englishman Sebastian Cabot led a Spanish expedition, he traded with the local tribes for silver. He named the river Rio de la Plate (today known as River Plate in English) meaning ‘the river of silver’ in the mistaken belief the precious metal was found in these waters. The country’s name means ‘silvery’, derived from the Latin argentina but only used since 1826 when the nation gained its independence.
Bahamas – has two schools of thought. If this is from the Spanish then it is ‘shallow sea’ from baja mar. However if this was originally the name of a small stream on the island of Cuba, later applied to the strait between there and Florida and from there to the islands then this represents a local name Guanahani and the meaning unknown.
Barbados – named by Spanish explorers as Los Barbados meaning ‘the bearded’, a reference to the moss hanging from the fig trees growing here.
Belize – is named from the River Belize, itself a Maya name thought to come from belix meaning ‘muddy water’.
Bolivia – known by the Spanish colonial name of Upper Peru until independence in 1825, this nation was named by the man who led the liberation from Spain, Simon Bolivar.
Brazil – is named from a tree, not that which bears brazil nuts but from brazil-wood. The wood was a source of a red dye, known to the Portuguese as braza literally ‘heat’ or ‘coals’. This was used prior to the discovery of the Americas to refer to a red dye obtained from the Far East and known by the Latin brasilium. The earlier name for this region was also Portuguese, named by Cabral in 1500 Vera Cruz meant ‘true cross’.
Canada – is a vast country of 3.8 million square miles named for tiny area around the St Lawrence where the Iroquoi referred to their kanata meaning ‘settlement’ or ‘village’.
Chile – may sound like a Spanish name but comes from the local Araucanian chili which really does mean ‘cold’ or ‘winter’. This is purely coincidental and is in no way related to ‘chilly’ but named by the Incas who found the climate here distinctly cooler than their native lands.
Colombia – the idea that Christopher Columbus arrived here in 1502 led to this being adopted as the nation’s name when achieving independence in 1863. Sixteenth century Spanish settlers had known this as New Granada.
Costa Rica – is a Spanish name literally referring to the ‘rich coast’. This recalls the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1502 when he called this the Costa del Oro or ‘coast of gold’ as the natives wore a great deal of gold and presented some of these trinkets as gifts.
Cuba – is certainly from the Taino language but the meaning is not overly clear. It could be from a word cubao ‘abundant fertile land' or coabana ‘great place’.
Dominica – when Christopher Columbus arrived on November 3rd 1493 it was a Sunday, hence it named it from the Latin dominica meaning ‘Sunday’. Prior to this the native Carib people called it Wai’tu kubuli or ‘tall is her body’.
Dominican Republic – shares an origin with the previous name, it settled by the Spanish one Sunday in 1496.
Ecuador – features the Spanish word for ‘equator’ which crosses the map of Ecuador. Previously it shared the name of the capital city of Quito, a name which will be explained next time when I look at the origins of the capital cities of the countries of the Americas.
El Salvador – named by Spanish settlers, originally just for their fort but later spreading to the whole region, it means ‘the Saviour’ in Spanish.
Grenada – not another named by Christopher Columbus, although he was its discoverer in 1498, for he called it Conception as it was found on the religious feast day known as the Immaculate Conception. The present name is taken from Granada in Spain, itself meaning ‘pomegranate’ and a reference to the four hills on which Spanish Granada is situated, said to be reminiscent of the four divisions of this fruit.
Guatemala – the name which started it all off is a Spanish version of a native name. The Tuendal word was uhatzmalha describing ‘the mountain that gushes forth water’ and referring to the volcanic mountain Agua.
Guyana – was previously British Guiana, both traceable to the native peoples who lived here when the region was first explored at the end of the fifteenth century. They were the Guaizas, which translates as ‘we who must be respected’.
Haiti – is from a Carib word thought to mean ‘mountainous’ or perhaps ‘rocky’.
Honduras – a name from the Spanish for ‘depths’ and traditionally named by them as they were so thankful for being delivered safely to shore after the journey across the depths of the Atlantic. Such creative etymology would doubtless be accepted if it were not for the very deep coastal seas here, indeed so deep it was a number of years before technologies and manpower enabled a harbour to be constructed.
Jamaica – another dating back to the pre-European days, this from the Arawak Xaymaca or ‘island of springs’. This is certainly better than the offering of Santiago by Christopher Columbus, chosen because he landed here on July 25th 1494, St James’ Day. In defence of Columbus he did have more places to name (or should that be rename?) than just about anyone in recorded history and at least he did not resort to naming them after relations or pets.
Mexico – the capital, Mexico City, gave the nation its name, itself a reminder of the lake which once occupied the region where this vast city now stands. It was named by the Aztecs who knew it as Metzlianan from metz-tli or ‘moon’, as the lake was dedicated to such, and atl or ‘water’. When they established their city on the island in the middle of the lake they named it Metzxihco or, quite literally, ‘in the navel of the waters of the moon’.
Nicaragua – was named by the Spanish explorer Gil Gonzalez in 1522, taking the name of the native chief Nicarao whose name is of unknown derivation.
Panama – is probably best known for its canal, the Panama Canal being named after the country, itself taking the name of its capital, Panama City. There are a number of theories as to the origin of Panama, all agree it comes from a native language but the question of which language, and therefore which word, is disputed. Some point to the local trees growing in the forest, others suggest this came about when the first settlers arrived in August, a time when butterflies abound, and called it the place of ‘many butterflies’. Most often cited is the story of the fishing village known by this name which was supposed to mean ‘abundance of fish’. Panamanians, eager to produce something from this confusion, have officially adopted the meaning of ‘abundant with fish, trees, and butterflies’, a tourist winner if ever there was one. This does not take into consideration the native Kuna word bannaba meaning ‘distant’ or ‘afar’.
Paraguay – is another chain, the country taking the name of the River Paraguay, in turn coming from the local tribe known as the Paragua, whose name comes from para simply ‘water’.
Peru – will forever be associated with the Incas, who knew their homeland as Tahuuantin-syun or ‘four provinces’. The modern name was coined by Spanish settlers who arrived to find the River Biru, itself thought to be a local word meaning ‘river’ or maybe a celebrated chieftain.
Saint Kitts and Nevis – takes the first part of the name from St Christopher, the name given to the place by Christopher Columbus, referring to the patron saint of travellers. When English settlers arrived 130 years later, they used Kit as it was then the common pet form of Christopher. Nevis came from the original Spanish name of Nuestra Senora de las Nieves or ‘Our Lady of the snows’ – the white clouds covering the top of the mountain appearing as snow. This was later corrupted to Nevis, also the name of the island’s highest mountain. Note this has no etymological connection with Scotland’s Ben Nevis although, quite coincidentally, Ben Nevis similarly describes ‘the mountain with its peak in the clouds’.
Saint Lucia – one of the Windward Islands and named after the Sicilian martyr St Lucy as it was on her feast day, December 13th, that he landed here in 1502.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – as with the previous name the main island was named by Christopher Columbus, for he landed here in 1498 on the feast day of St Vincent. It was previously known as Youloumain by the native Caribs as it was ‘a land blessed with rainbows, mist, fertile valleys, and sun’. The Grenadines are a chain of smaller islands stretching southwards and share an origin with Grenada.
Suriname – was known as Dutch Guiana but changed to represent the former indigenous people, the Surinen.
Trinidad and Tobago – is the name of two islands, Trinidad named by Christopher Columbus in 1498. It is often said he named it because he arrived here on Trinity Sunday, the Spanish word for ‘trinity’ being trinidad, however it is more likely the ‘trinity’ was the three peaks seen as the island is approached. Columbus also discovered neighbouring Tobago, which he named from the native Haitian tambaku meaning ‘pipe’ as they were smoking tobacco, the English word having the same derivation.
United States of America – requires no explanation for the first two words, the first evidence of the name found in a letter dated January 2nd 1776, written by Stephen Moylan, George Washington’s aide-de-camp. This is not the case with the name of the continents of North America and South America. Traditionally they were named by the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, from Latin version of his first name. Usually it will have been his surname and this would have produced the United States of Vespuca, so perhaps this was discounted in favour of that now in use by Martin Waldseemuller. This German cartographer produced a world map in 1507 on which he named the ‘Americas’. He based the new lands on notes made by Vespucci published in 1502 and 1504 in which he never refers to the new lands as ‘America’. All Vespucci ever did was prove the discoveries of Columbus were not of a new and shorter route to the east but of a new and vast continent previously unknown to those on the Eurasian continent.
Uruguay – is named after the River Uruguay, itself thought to be from the native term uru ‘bird’ and guay ‘river’ and officially said to represent ‘the river of the painted birds’.
Venezuela – was first seen by European eyes in 1499 on the voyage of Alonso de Ojeda. The navigator on this voyage was the aforementioned Amerigo Vespucci who, on seeing the villages built on piles to keep the buildings clear of the waters of Lake Maracaibo, was reminded of Venice and thus called it Veneziola or ‘Little Venice’ (Spanish influence altering the spelling to the modern form). However this is disputed by some who point to the account by one Martin Fernandez de Enciso, another member of the same crew, speaks of the local people referring to themselves as Veneciuela.
As mentioned earlier the origins of the capital cities of these countries will be discussed next time.