Spanish-Speaking Countries & the Origin of their Names
- Argentina comes from the latin word for silver, argentum. The first use of the word appears around the time of when the Spanish conquistadors arrived at the Río de la Plata (River of Silver, Silver River) between Argentina and Uruguay.
- Bolivia comes from the name of a leader during the period of the Spanish American wars for independence, Simón Bolívar.
- The valley of the Aconcagua was called “Chili” by the Incas (according to Diego de Rosales) due to a corruption of the name Tili (a tribal chief).
- Another theory is that there was a town or valley called Chili in the Casma Valley in Peru, which has a resemblance to the valley of Aconcagua.
- Chile could come from an indigenous word meaning “ends of the earth” or “sea gulls."
- From Mapuche, "chilli” meaning “where the land ends."
- From Quechua, "chiri” meaning “cold” or “tchili” meaning “snow” or “the deepest point of the Earth."
- There is a bird that shouts "chile” when flying; they are in all the valleys from the center of the country to the Southern regions. These birds are called Queltehues or Treiles.
- Colombia is derived from the name Christopher Columbus.
- Costa Rica means “rich coast” in Spanish. Christopher Columbus was given credit for discovering this country and called it Costa Rica because he believed there to be precious metals.
- Cuba is Taíno for “where fertile land is abundant” (cubao) or “great place” (coabana).
- The Dominican Republic shares an island with Haiti.
- Before the whole island was called Haiti, the Taíno word for mountainous land. Christopher Columbus comes to the island and renames it Hispaniola, meaning “little Spain” because its beauty was comparable to that of Spain’s.
- The French arrive on the island, naming the current-day Haiti St. Domingue and the Spanish refered to the Dominican Republic and Santo Domingo.
- After its independence, they renamed it to the Dominican Republic
- Ecuador means “equator” in Spanish, and Ecuador lies on the equator.
- El Salvador means “The Savior” in Spanish.
- Guatemala comes from the Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān, which means “place of many trees."
- Another theory is that the country’s name is a alteration of the Nahoa word which means "land of the snake-eating bird.”
- Honduras means “depths” in Spanish. It is said that Columbus said, "Gracias a Dios que hemos salido de estas Honduras"(Thank God we have left these depths).
- The Nahuatl word Mexica means “place of the Mexica” (the Aztecs).
- In Nahuatl, a combination of three words creates the meaning similar to “in the navel of the moon” because the position of lakes resembles a rabbit; therefore alluding to the navel of a rabbit.
- At the time of the Spanish arrival in Nicaragua, Nicarao was the current chief of the indigenous tribe. Nicarao, combined with the Spanish word for water (agua) due to it’s geography, makes Nicaragua.
- Another theory is that it means “surrounded by water” in an indigenous language.
- Panama comes from a word of the indigenous language meaning something similar to an “abundance of fish” (due to the country’s geography).
- Coming from Guaraní, Paraguay is believed to refer to a river despite many versions of its origin. It means something similar to “river that flows through the sea” (French-Argentine historian Paul Groussac), “river crowned” (Antonio Ruiz de Montoya), or refers either to an indigenous tribe that lived along the river or a chief named Paraguaio (Félix de Azara).
- The original name of Peru was Birú, Birú being the name of a ruler who lived close to the Bay of San Miguel, Panama. He was visited by Spanish explores where, at the time, was the southernmost region of the New World.
- When Francisco Pizarro arrived in Peru, he asked locals the name of the place. Their answer was “Viru” because of the Viru River in northern Peru (where the Spanish arrived). Instead, they heard “Peru” and since that moment, Pizarro called the land Cusco Peru.
- Puerto Rico was originally called San Juan Bautista by Christopher Columbus, after the Catholic saint, Saint John the Baptist, while the capital was called the Ciudad de Puerto Rico. As time went on, gold was found in the river and the country began to be referred to as Puerto Rico.
- España (Spain) comes from the Roman name Hispania, though the origins of this word are unknown.
- Hispania could have stemmed from the Greek word Hesperia, which poetically means “western land” or “land of the setting sun” (in reference to Italy), which would then make Spain (further west) Hesperia ultima.
- Antonio de Nebrija (Renaissance) thought that Hispania is derived from the word Hispalis, which means “city of the western world.”
- Another theory is that it comes from I-Shpania (Punic), meaning something similar to “land of rabbits” because the Roman coins were adorned with a female figure with a rabbit.
- Uruguay is a Guaraní word, which means “river of shellfish” or “river the uru birds come from."
- The indigenous people living in Venezuela during the 1500s built their living quarters on stilts over places like Lake Maracaibo; this reminded a Spanish explorer of Venice (Italy), in which the name Venezuela means "little Venice.”
- From the same place in the Maracaibo Lake, the indigenous community that lived there already had a name for the land, Veneçiuela, which meant agua grande (big waters). The Spanish spread that around and assumed that it was the name.
Please correct me if any of these are incorrect! Some of these have multiple histories and I have no way of knowing which one is correct.
The origins for some of the countries are difficult to find or too fuzzy in my opinion to write it down, but I tried to provide an explanation for the meaning (e.g. El Salvador, Honduras, etc.)