Know Your ‘Nangos: Making Sense of Guatemalan Place Names

By Riley Lynch

If it’s trivia night at Ojalá, and they ask what “Guatemala” means, write this down: “land of trees.” You can thank me later. But the truth is a little more complicated. A lot of people think the country derives its name from the word, cuauhtemallan (or coactemahlán.) This is said to mean “place of many trees” in the Nahuatl dialect of the Tlaxcaltecan warriors who accompanied conquistador Pedro de Alvarado. It’s a loose translation of the Mayan name of the people who challenged Alvarado when he arrived in the highlands: K’iche’ means “many trees.”

But not everybody agrees. Some scholars translate the Nahuatl root as “place of abundant flowers.” Others say it refers to the breadnut tree (brosimum alicastrum, a.k.a. ramón), known to the Kaqchikel people as iximche. Iximche was also the name of the Kaqchikel’s capital at the time that they joined forces with Alvarado to fight the K’iche’. But wait. There’s more.

One explanation traces the name to quanhtemali, “decaying log.” By this account, a particularly memorable dead tree was found near the Kaqchikel royal court. Another version cites the word uhatezmalha, “mountain that vomits water” in the Mayan Tzendal language. This could refer to the volcano Agua, which overlooks the site of Antigua Guatemala. Still others derive the name from Juitemal, the king of some unidentified tribe.

The most imaginative etymology proposes “Guatemala” as a corruption of “Gautama-tlan,” which is to say, “the place of the Buddha.” The author of this theory, Edward P. Vining, believes Chinese missionaries reached Central America about 1500 years ago. He also wrote a book arguing that Shakespeare’s Hamlet was actually a woman.

Whatever Guatemala means, it’s easier to decipher the names of its cities. Xela, short for Xelajú, comes from the K’ich’e’ xe lajuj noj meaning “under ten mountains.” Quetzaltenango is Nahuatl for “place of the quetzal.” Has anybody actually seen any quetzals — the kind with wings — since the 16th Century?

The other ‘tenangos also describe “places”. Chimaltenango is “place of the shield” or “place of the wall.” Momostenango means “place of the idols” or “place of the altars.” Huehuetenango is “place of the water” or “place of the mountains,” or possibly, “resting place.” Chichicastenango is “place of the nettles.” Mazatenango (“place of deer”) shares its prefix with the Mexican resort of Mazatlán (“abundance of deer”). No wonder Mazate’s soccer team, rival to the Super Chivos, is known as the Venados (“stags”).

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