Latin American country names as historical shorthand

When we lived in New Mexico, back in the 1990’s, our kids used to get a kick out of the names of some of the local towns. There was Truth or Consequences, the town that voted to change its name from Hot Springs in 1950 to win the privilege of hosting the radio show’s 10th anniversary special (the TV show came later). Elephant Butte was named for a volcanic rock formation that looks like you-know-what (the whole beast, not just its tuchis). Santa Fe’s Amtrak station was located out of town in Lamy, named for an early local archbishop, and pronounced “lay me”. You can imagine how that went over with our pre-teen boys.

Little did they realize that toponyms, or place names, can be a serious object of study. Like fossils, toponyms are revealing artifacts, vestigial clues to history. This is certainly true in Latin America, where the various country names are practically a mnemonic shorthand for the key aspects of the colonial period:

  • The country names Columbia (for Christopher Columbus), Puerto Rico (“rich port”), Costa Rica (“rich coast”), Honduras (“deep waters”), and Ecuador (“Equator”) hark back to the act of exploration itself. The name “America” itself, of course, comes from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
  • Argentina (from Latin argentum, “silver”) reflects Spain’s hunger for treasure. South American silver would finance the Spanish Empire’s wars in Europe for the next three hundred years.
  • El Salvador (“the savior”) and República Dominicana (from the Dominican order of monks) memorialize the missionary aspect of the Spanish conquest. The same is true of Trinidad (“Trinity”), which later passed into British hands.
  • The names Chile, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay, and Uruguay are generally believed to have Native American origins, although their exact etymologies are controversial. The guay of Paraguay and Uruguay probably comes from a Guaraní word meaning “from the river”.
  • Finally, Bolivia is named for the revolutionary hero Simón Bolívar, who took a lead role in ending the Spanish Empire.

Additionally, “Venezuela” is purported to come from “Venice” because the indigenous inhabitants of Lake Macaraibo lived in houses built over the lake itself. But that’s more uncertain and less historically relevant than the above.

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