Previously I looked at the origins of the names of the countries of (what was once known as) the New World. In there I mentioned defining their capital cities, so I do and in the same alphabetical order of the countries.
Antigua and Barbuda – capital city is St John’s which, as with every other parish on the islands, is named after the dedication of the parish church.
Argentina – where the capital city is Buenos Aries, named by Spanish settlers who arrived here in 1536. Fortunately, at least for the Argentinian postal service, the modern version is an abbreviation of the original name of Ciudad da la Santisima Trinidad y Puerto de nuestra senora la virgin Maria de los beunos aries. The name meaning ‘City of the Most Holy Trinity and port of Our Lady the Virgin Mary of the Good Winds’ has nothing to do with local weather or climate but has a beginning referring to Trinity Sunday, the day on which the settlement was founded, the remainder reminds us the Virgin Mary is the patron saint of sailors.
Bahamas – today the capital is Nassau but, when founded in 1729, was known as Charlestown to honour the English king Charles II. When William III took the throne, he of the House of Orange-Nassau, the name was changed. Incidentally the name of the royal house comes from the Germany duchy of Nassau, itself from Old High German naz ‘damp or marshy’ and augia ‘land’.
Barbados – when discovered by the British they found the remains of a primitive bridge across the Careenage swamp, this built by the Arawak people. This led to them knowing the place as Indian Bridge and yet very soon the place was officially known as the Town of Saint Michael from the dedication of the church. Later, when the same church was given cathedral status, the name was officially changed to the somewhat oxymoronic City of Bridgetown.
Belize – has the capital city of Belmopan, the name only existing since 1967. The capital replaced the former capital, also Belize, destroyed by a hurricane in 1961. The new city was built 50 miles inland on a tributary of the River Belize, the River Molpan, and named as part of the former city and the river.
Bolivia – the constitutional capital is La Paz, an abbreviation of the original name of Pueblo Nuevo de Nuestra Senora de la Paz. Given by the Spanish in 1548, it was named to mark the peace between themselves and the locals and means ‘new town of Our Lady of Peace’.
Brazil – has a capital named Brasilia, a new city founded as recently as 1960 to move the seat of government in this huge country to a more neutral and central location. It 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’. The previous capital, and one still often mistakenly said to have that status, is Rio de Janeiro. It was named as such by the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who thought the bay on which the city stands to be the estuary of a large river and thus called it ‘the January river’, it being New Years’ Day in 1502.
Canada – has the capital city of Ottawa, taken from the tribe known as the Outaouacs or Outaouais who came here from the around Lake Huron and whose name is thought to mean ‘traders’. Earlier it was known as Bytown, named after Colonel John By, an English soldier who organised the building of the Rideau Canal.
Chile – its capital Santiago was founded in 1541 by Pedro de Valdiva as Santiago del Nuevo Extremo ‘Santiago of the new frontier’. Named in honour of St James, San Jago to the Spanish, is said to have preached in Spain and his body brought there following his martyrdom in Jerusalem.
Colombia – had its capital founded and named by the Spanish explorer Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada on January 6th 1538 as Santa Fe de Bogota. Here Santa Fe means ‘holy faith’, a reference to January 6th being the Feast of the Transfiguration, while Bogota is a Spanish rendering of the name of the tribal chief Bacata.
Costa Rica – where the capital is San Jose, the Spanish for Saint Joseph. When founded it was known as Villa Nueva, simply ‘new town’.
Cuba – the capital of Havana is of uncertain origins, possibly a tribal name or that of a Taino chieftain known as Habaguanex. It is first recorded when the Spanish explorer Diego Velasquez named if San Cristobal de la Habana (St Christopher of Habana) to honour Christopher Columbus.
Dominica – where the capital city is Roseau, named after the River Rouseau, itself named by French explorers from the reeds known as phragmites which grew there.
Dominican Republic – dating from the Spanish settlement of 1496, the capital of Santo Domingo can claim to be the oldest European city in the Americas. The name either means ‘Saint Dominic’ or ‘holy Sunday’, depending upon one’s interpretation as to whether this is after Domenico Columbus (father of Christopher) of Saint Dominic (Domingo de Guzman) and founded on a Sunday. Briefly, from 1936 to 1961, it was known as Ciudad Trujillo after dictator Trujillo Molina, while the native Taino people had known it as Quisqueya or ‘mother of all islands’ before the Europeans arrived.
Ecuador – has the capital city Quito. This was also the name of the entire country until 1830, it was named by Spanish explorers after the local Quitu tribe who were extinct by the nineteenth century.
El Salvador – has the capital city San Salvador, Spanish for ‘holy saviour’ as it was founded on the Feast of Transfiguration August 6th 1525.
Grenada – has the capital St George’s, named after the patron saint of England. Prior to this the settlement was French and named Saint Louis after King Louis IX and then, when rebuilt on higher ground, was renamed Fort Royale.
Guatemala – the name which started it all off, where the capital is Guatemala City. This is a Spanish version of the original Tuendal name uhatzmalha or ‘the mountain that gushes water’.
Guyana – the capital is Georgetown, founded in 1781 and named by the British in honour of George III. Shortly afterward, in 1784, the Dutch gained control and renamed it Stabroek or ‘little pool’, with this returning to Georgetown in 1812.
Haiti – has the capital city Port-au-Prince. Meaning ‘the port of the Prince’ it is held the bay, and later the port and city, were named after a vessel which took shelter here, that vessel named Prince.
Honduras – has the capital city Tegucigalpa, named from the local Nahuatl language where Taguz-galpa apparently means ‘the hills of silver’. However this is disputed as the locals were seemingly unaware of this precious metal being available here. Other explanations, which suggest this came from other languages, provide the alternative meanings of ‘painted rocks’, a Mexican dance, ‘place of residence of the noble’, ‘place on the home of the beloved master’, and ‘in the homes of the sharp stones’.
Jamaica – has the capital Kingston, named to honour the English king William III.
Mexico – was named for its capital city Mexico City, itself named Metzlianan by the Aztecs and coming from the lake named from metz-tli ‘moon’ and atl ‘water’.
Nicaragua – has the capital city Managua, which comes from the local Nahuatl tongue meaning ‘adjacent to the water’ or perhaps ‘surrounded by water’. Ironically this name has also been given to Lake Managua, itself the ‘water’ which gave the settlement its name.
Panama – the country is named from the capital, Panama City. This name was discussed last time, where all theories 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 – had its capital Asuncion named by Spanish explorers on August 15th 1536, the feast day of the Assumption or, to the Spanish, Nuestra Senora de la Asuncion ‘Our Lady of the Assumption’.
Peru – has the capital Lima, a city founded in 1535 by Franciso Pizzaro who called it Ciudad de los Reyes ‘city of the kings’. As the years passed it slowly became more often referred to by the same name as the river on which it stands. The River Rimac takes the name of a god whose name means ‘he who speaks’.
St Kitts and Nevis – the capital of Basseterre, a name which is derived from the French for ‘low land’ or ‘down land’. This term is seen several times around the Caribbean.
Saint Lucia – the settlement founded by the French in 1650 was known as Carenage or ‘safe anchorage’. Renamed Castries in 1756, this honoured the commander of the French expeditionary force Eugene Gabriel de La Croix, marquis de Castries.
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – has the capital Kingstown, named to honour the ruling monarch both by the original French and the British who came afterwards.
Suriname – Paramaribo is the capital city, named by the local tribe where para maribo describes ‘the dwellers by the sea’.
Trinidad and Tobago – was settled by the Spanish, hence the capital city being Port of Spain. Previously this settlement was known as Cumucurapo by the local people, this meaning ‘the place of the silk cotton trees’.
United States of America – has the capital Washington, D.C. It is named after George Washington, the first president of the United States of America and a man whose grandfather was lord of the manor of Sulgrave in Northamptonshire and also my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather.
Uruguay – can boast the southernmost capital city of all the Americas. Montevideo comes from the Portuguese, possibly named by Magellan, monte vidi eo or ‘I saw the mountain’. Another idea of monte VI de O, where ‘VI’ is a Roman numeral and ‘O’ the Portuguese abbreviation for oeste ‘west’ seems highly contrived, especially when defined as ‘sixth mountain from the west’.
Venezuela – has the capital city Caracas. Named by Spanish explorers after the local tribe, it was originally known as Santiago de Leon de Caracas where Saint James, the patron saint of Spain, preceded Don Pedro Ponce de Leon, the provincial governor.