Culture around the world

What do Mexican and US place names mean?

MEXICO

Guadalajara

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Guadalajara is the capital of the western Jalisco region of Mexico. Its name means ‘river or valley of stones’. Guadalajara in Mexico is named after the city Guadalajara in Spain, Much of Spain was ruled by Moorish Arabs until 1492, and so as a result this name actually comes from Arabic: وادي الحجارة (wādi al-ḥiŷara).

Zapopan

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Zapopan, located right next door to Guadalajara, has a name that derives from the indigenous Náhuatl language. It literally means “place of the zapote fruit”. Its name derives from a Náhuatl hieroglyph, which depicts a sapote tree with a flag by its side.

Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl

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The city of Nezahualcóyotl, is a district of the Greater Mexico City metropolitan area, with just over a million inhabitants. Locals know it just as ‘Ciudad Neza’, and also know it as one of Mexico City’s most infamous ghettos. They may also know it as the place that gave birth to the famous Mexican ‘albur‘, or sexual innuendo. The city’s name, though, also comes from Nahuátl and means “fasting coyote”, or “coyote abstaining from food”.

Chihuahua

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The city of Chihuahua is the capital of the northern Mexican state of the same name, which borders the US states of Texas and New Mexico. Apart from giving a name to the world’s most famous tiny dog, made famous by Paris Hilton and others, the origins of the name Chihuahua is an interesting and contested story. Some toponymists the dialect of Indian Conchos, about whose language little is known, but the most commonly accepted version is that it is Náhuatl. It comes from the words ‘xi’ and ‘cauhua’, which mean “dry or dusty place”.

Acapulco

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The beautiful city of Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast has long been a favourite for tourists from the US and elsewhere, looking for a place to spend their vacations. It was also made famous in Frank Sinatra’s 1958 hit “Come Fly With Me“, and then the 1988 hit by Four Tops: “Loco in Acapulco“. Its name, however, is Náhuatl and means “Place where the river reeds were destroyed”.

Cancún

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Nowadays Cancún is synonymous with package holidays and year-round sunshine. Located in the south-east of Mexico, on the country’s Caribbean coast, the area around Cancún was actually in Mayan territory, and as such its name comes from Mayan. There are two possible translations. According to one version, Cancún means “nest of snakes”. According to the other version, Cancún means “place of the gold snake”.

Veracruz

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Veracruz, on Mexico’s western Caribbean coast, was the first place that Spanish conquistadors landed. Its name means “true cross”, coming from Latin. Its full name was ‘Veracruz de Ignacio de la Llave’, named after Ignacio de la Llave y Segura Zevallos (1818–1863), who was the governor of the Veracruz from 1861 to 1862.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

Los Angeles

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The state of California was formally ceded to the United States of America in 1848. However, by that point, many of its cities had already been given Spanish names, the vast majority of which still have not been changed. California’s largest city, Los Angeles, is an example of this, and means “the angels”. Its original, full Spanish name was ‘El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula’, which translates as “town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula’.

Las Vegas

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The state of Nevada was also ceded to the US in 1848, along with its largest and most notorious city Las Vegas. Nowadays, Las Vegas is synonymous with gambling, partying and is colloquially known as the ‘City of Sin’. Its original Spanish name, though, is much more innocent. ‘Las Vegas’ means “the meadows”, and must refer to the fact that in the midst of the arid Nevada desert, it was the one place with water flowing through it. The name ‘Nevada’ also comes from Spanish, and means “snow-capped”, named after the Sierra Nevada mountain range in Spain.

Connecticut

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Connecticut is a quiet, suburban state just next to New York, which gives US school children nightmares trying to learn how to spell. The reason for this, is that despite misleadingly having the words “connect” and “cut” in it, its name is not English at all. The state of Connecticut is named after the Connecticut river which runs through it. The Connecticut river is named after the indigenous Algonquian word for a “long, tidal river”.

Mississippi

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Another infamous spelling bee challenge, Mississippi is a state in the south-east of the US, bordered to the west by the Mississippi river which gives it its name. This part of the US was once colonised by the French. The name ‘Mississippi’, therefore, is actually a French rendition of the indigenous American Anishinaabe (Ojibwe or Algonquin) name for the river, “Misi-ziibi,” which means “Great River.”

Chicago

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In the northern US state of Illinois, on the south-western banks of Lake Michigan, is the United States’ third most populated city: Chicago. Famous for its unforgiving winter climate, Chicago is fondly known as the “windy city”. Its name, though, has indigenous American origins. It is also actually a French rendering of the Myaami word ‘shikaakwa’, which is the name for a garlic plant (known to botanists as Allium tricoccum) that grows in abundance in the forests of the region.

Utah

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The doubly landlocked state of Utah is located in the west of the United States. It’s famous nowadays for the fact that more than 60% of its population of 3 million classify themselves as Mormons. The name ‘Utah’ is derived from the name of the indigenous ‘Ute’ tribe, whose descendants still live in the area, and means “people of the mountains”. According to some accounts, it comes from the Apache word ‘Yudah’, which means “tall”.

Wyoming

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The state of Wyoming, to Utah’s northeast, is the least populous state in the US with just over half a million inhabitants. The state received the name Wyoming when a bill was passed in the US Congress in 1865, to provide a “temporary government for the territory of Wyoming”. The word ‘Wyoming’ itself derives from the Munsee word ‘xwé:wamənk‘, and means “at the big flat river”. The Munsee language was spoken by indigenous peoples on the East Coast, far from the state of Wyoming, in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.


Alex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

 

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