What Do Latin American Country Names Mean?

Europeans first arrived in Latin America in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

Until then, the region was inhabited by indigenous tribes, such as the Maya (mostly in modern Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador), Inca (mostly in modern Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and southern Colombia), and Aztec (mostly in modern Mexico).

What has always fascinated me is the range of idiosyncrasies observed in Latin American country names.

On one hand, you have countries whose names are evidently influenced from the languages of their Spanish conquistadors (e.g., El Salvador, Costa Rica).

On the other hand, you have countries whose name decidedly points to native linguistic origins (e.g., Panama, Guatemala).

Have you ever wondered where each Latin American country’s name comes from? This post will explore that question.

The table below lists all 20 Latin American Countries, and the origin of their names.

You will notice a lot of diversity. You will also notice the single common characteristic of the names: nearly all are of ambiguous origin, and there are multiple competing theories as to the story behind them.

Map of South America

Map of South America published in Mercator’s Atlas. Amsterdam, 1633.

 

COUNTRY NAMEORIGIN OF NAME
ArgentinaThe name comes from "Argentum", which means silver in Latin, hence too "Rio de la Plata" (plata = silver, in Spanish) precisely because the Spaniards went through there to get to the silver mines of Potosi (Bolivia).
BoliviaArguably the most emblematic figure of Latin American independence from Spain was Simón Bolívar, who was born in Venezuela. His name inspired the name of what is now Bolivia.
BrazilIts name comes from the "brazilwood tree" (pau-brasil, in Portuguese), a tropical tree abundant in the region. When this tree burned, it gave off a reddish color, similar to burning charcoal ("brasa", in Latin).
ChileOne of the many theories is that the name originated from the word "tili" in the Aymara language, meaning "Finis Terrae" or "End of the World".
ColombiaThe origin of its name is directly related to Christopher Columbus. His Italian surname, Colombo, comes from the Latin columbus, which means pigeon, the bird that symbolizes peace.
Costa RicaIn Spanish, Costa Rica means "rich coast". Its name comes from the abundance of natural resources found by Christopher Columbus when he arrived there in 1502.
CubaThe name Cuba likely comes from the language of the Taínos, the island's native peoples. There are several theories about the name's meaning, which relate to the land itself, including "where fertile land is abundant" ("cubao" in the Taíno language), or "great place" ("coabana" in the Taíno language).
Dominican RepublicAlong with Haiti, the island was initially dubbed "La Española" ("the island of the Spanish"). The current name was put in honor of the Dominican Order, and its patron saint, Saint Dominic.
EcuadorIts name is directly related to its geographical position, on the equator.
El SalvadorThis is simply the name of the Divine Savior of the World (in short, The Savior), that is, of Jesus Christ.
GuatemalaQuauhtlemallan was the name given to the land by Tlaxcalteca warriors when they fought alongside Pedro de Alvarado against the Quiche peoples. In Náhualtl, their Aztec language, Quauhtlemallan means "the land of many trees".
Honduras"Honduras" literally means "depths" in Spanish. The Spaniards who first came to this area likely gave it that name because of the deep waters. Christopher Columbus has been quoted as saying "Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de esas Honduras" ("Thank God we have come out of those depths") while navigating the coast of Honduras.
MexicoThere are several versions, but one states that the name comes from the Aztecs, who called themselves Mexica, in honor of their god of war, Mexitli.
NicaraguaThe country's name is likely derived from Nicarao, chief of the most populous indigenous Nahuatl-speaking tribe which inhabited the land before the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the Spanish word agua, meaning water, due to the presence of large lakes.
PanamaThere are several theories about the origin of the name Panama. One states that the country was named after a species of tree that is abundand in the region. Another claims that the first settlers arrived in Panama in August, when butterflies abound, and that the name means "many butterflies" in an indigenous tongue.
ParaguayThe name comes from the river Paraguay, which is a word in Guarani, an indigenous language. There are different versions of what the word means, including "water as big as the sea", and "river of many waters".
PeruUnsurprisingly, there are several theories about Peru's name. The Spaniards, in the times of Francisco Pizarro, called it so (namely, "Biru" or "Piru" which then led to "Peru") from the name of a chief who lived near the Bay of San Miguel, Panama, in the early 16th century.
Puerto RicoThe current name alludes to the wealth of the port of San Juan Bautista, which was the name given to the land by Christopher Columbus in honor of Catholic Saint John the Baptist. Interestingly, Puerto Ricans often call the island Borinquen - a derivation of Borikén, its indigenous Taíno name, which means "Land of the Valiant Lord".
UruguayThe name comes from the river Uruguay, which is a word in Guarani, an indigenous language. There are different versions of what the word means, including "river of birds" or "river of snails."
VenezuelaWhen Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci arrived in this land, the cottages on the waters of Lake Maracaibo reminded him of Venice. Therefore, he named the land Little Venice ("Veneziola"). The current name is a Spanish rendition of that word.

Inspiration Source for this post (in Spanish)

 

To obtain a deeper understanding of Latin America history, check out the following books:

 

Pre-Columbian Era

[amazon-element asin=”B000JMKVE4″ fields=”title,image,medium-image-link,desc,button” labels=”large-image-link::click for larger image:,title-wrap::h2,desc::Book Description:]

 

Post-Columbian Era

More accessible / easily digestible: [amazon-element asin=”0393911543″ fields=”title,image,medium-image-link,desc,button” labels=”large-image-link::click for larger image:,title-wrap::h2,desc::Book Description:]

 

More thorough, longer, and denser: [amazon-element asin=”0141034750″ fields=”title,image,medium-image-link,desc,button” labels=”large-image-link::click for larger image:,title-wrap::h2,desc::Book Description:]

 

 

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