How Yucatan got its Name

There are several different stories about how Yucatan got its name and each one has its own share of websites and books claiming that it is the one, true version.  Some are clearly apocryphal and are often repeated simply because they make a good story.  Others have their credibility bolstered by the fact they were cited in the early historical accounts that were written shortly after the Spanish first came to Yucatan.  A few have a ring of logic, but have no historical mention.  Some are based on erroneous etymological origins, which sound good at first, but do not stand up to close scrutiny.

One story of the origin of the name Yucatan is that the name is derived from the Nahuatl word “Yokatlān,” meaning “place of richness.”  The two words are markedly similar, but since Nahuatl is an Aztec language and the first Spanish to land in Yucatan only encountered Maya, the chance the Maya used an Aztec term to describe their homeland is highly improbable.  It would be like a Frenchman going into a Texan BBQ joint and asking a likely looking Texan (in French) “what do you call this meat?” and the Texan replying (in Japanese) “the best food there is.”  The real bullet that shoots this theory of Yokatlān = Yucatan is that there is no such word as Yokatlān in Nahuatl, according to the department of Nahua Language and Culture of the University of Zacatecas.  It seems an author once tried to put two Nahua words together to make a compound word sounding like “yucatan” in a book about the origins of place names, but one of the two words he chose (yoka) is not possible to pair with “tlan” in that language, nor does it mean “richness.”

Another version of where Yucatan got its name that is frequently heard states that when Francisco Hernández de Córdoba first arrived in 1517 at Cabo Catoche, Yucatan, he asked the first Maya he encountered “what do you call this place?”  The Maya were supposed to have responded with something that sounded like “Yucatan,” allegedly meaning “I don’t understand what you are saying.”

The first one to tell this particular story may have been Hernán Cortés, in his first letter to the Spanish Crown in July, 1519.  In the letter, Cortez writes about his voyage to Mexico earlier that same year and points out to the king and queen that the name they know Yucatan by is not its real name.  Cortés refers to Francisco Hernández de Córdoba’s voyage to Yucatan two years earlier and wrote: “when the first discoverers arrived there they asked the natives of the land what did they call the place, and the Indians, not understanding what was being asked, responded in their own language and said ‘Yucatan, Yucatan’ which means to say ‘I don’t understand, I don’t understand’ and so the Spanish discoverers thought that the Indians responded that it was called Yucatan, and so in this manner the inappropriate name of Yucatan was assigned to this land.”  Fray Toribio de Benavente (also known as Motolinia) repeats this version in his 1541 Historia de los indios de la Nueva España, as does Francisco López de Gómara, in his 1552 work Hispania Victrix; primera y segunda parte de la historia general de las Indias co[n] todo el descubrimiento, y cosas notables que han acaescido dende que se ganaron hasta el año de 1551, con la conquista de Mexico, y de la nueua España.

Cortés’ version, where the Maya reply with  “I don’t understand” and the misunderstood phrase becoming the peninsula’s name for all time, makes a fun story, but there is no clear 16th century Yucatec Mayan cognate which matches the phonology of “Yucatan.” “T’an” and “t’aan” are root words in Mayan meaning “language,” “speech,” or “words,” but “Yuca t’an” is Mayan gibberish.

It has also been suggested in certain books and websites that Yucatan is a derivation of the Chontal Tabascan word “yokatan,” meaning “language,” or “the region where the language is spoken.”  Again the notion seems tempting; “yokatan” is very similar sounding to “yucatan.” However, the Chontal word postulated here is actually written “yokot’an” and it does not mean language, but rather “speaker of yoko ochoco,” with yoko ochoco being the language of the Chontal Maya of Tabasco. But, why would the Yucatec Maya who Córdoba had encountered in 1517 reply with the Chontal yoko ochoco words meaning “Chontal speaker” when asked “what do you call this place?” The Chontal Maya were well known to the Yucatec Mayans, and there had been substantial intercourse between the two groups over the centuries, so there would have been no way the Yucatecs would mistake the Spanish visitors for Chontal Maya. Given the fact they couldn’t even understand Córdoba’s question (phrased in Spanish as it was), this theory makes no sense.

Another often quoted version of the origin story comes from William Gate’s 1937 English translation of Fray Diego de Landa’s 1566 book Relación de las cosas de Yucatán. The English translation reads:

“When Francisco Hernández de Córdoba came to this country and landed at the point he called Cape Cotoch, he met certain Indian fisherfolk…. When he then by signs asked them how the land was theirs, they replied Ci uthan, meaning ‘they say it,’ and from that the Spaniards gave the name Yucatan. This was learned from one of the early conquerors, Blas Hernández, who came here with the admiral on the first occasion.”

The words the Spaniards were supposed to have misunderstood for “Yucatan” are actually spelled “ci u than,” Mayan for “so say they.”  The problem with this story is, it presupposes the Mayans could understand the rather abstract question put to them in Spanish of “How is this your land?” when they supposedly replied “so say they.”  Try asking someone who only speaks Chinese this question in Greek and see how far you get.

Another origin story points to an early use of the word “Yucatan” in the Mayan manuscript called the Chilam Balam of Chumayel.  This is one of 13 known copies of the Chilam Balam, which were 18th century manuscripts written in Mayan using the Latin alphabet.  In the text of the Chumayel version, there is a line that reads “uay ti luum Yucal Peten, Yucatan tu than maya ah Itzaob lae” (“here in the land Yucal Peten, Yucatan in the Mayan language of the Itzas”).  That seems pretty definitive, until you realize the text was written down at least 200 years after the place was first called Yucatan by the Spaniards, a name which by that time was used by everyone, including the Yucatec Maya.

A similar problem is encountered when one tries to pin down the origin of the name Yucatan to the report Bartolomé Colón (Cristóbal Colón’s brother) wrote regarding Colón’s fourth voyage to the New world in 1502. As participant in this expedition, Bartolomé’s eyewitness account should be deemed fairly reliable.  The translation of the report that is most often quoted as the first use of the word Yucatan is: “In this place they seized a canoe of theirs loaded with merchandise and wares which they say comes from a certain province called Maia or Yuncatan…”  Unfortunately, the line in the original Italian manuscript (located in the National Library of Florence, Italy) actually reads “In questo loco pigliorono una Nave loro carica di mercantia et merce la quale dicevono veniva da una cierta provintia chiamata Maiam vel Iuncatam…” The word often transcribed as “Yuncatan” or “Yucatan” is actually written in the manuscript as “Iuncatam.”  Not only that, but the real nail in this story’s coffin is that this word “Iuncatam” is superscribed over the word “Maiam” in a later, different colored ink in order to correct and update the report by changing the word “Maiam” in the original manuscript to a term more closely approximating the name “Yucatan” that was in common use when the correction was made.

The last contender for the origin of the name “Yucatan” is found in the account written by Bernal Díaz de Castillo, the soldier who had traveled widely in the new world on several expeditions before arriving at Cabo Catoche with Córdoba in 1517.  Díaz always recorded his first hand accounts better and with less fanciful additions to the narrative than the other historians of the day.  He wrote in his account The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, that when Córdoba and his group began to try to speak with the first Maya they encountered, there was a lot of confusion and misinterpretation.  Díaz, who was present at the time the two groups were trying to communicate with one another, later wrote that through signs and pantomime the Spaniards tried to get information from the Maya, such as “was there gold to be found nearby?” and “were there gold mines in this country?”  The Maya, Díaz wrote, answered with signs in the affirmative, but began to show the Spaniards how to plant in the ground.  This, one assumes, is through a misinterpretation of the pantomime of mining for that of planting.  The Spaniards, Díaz wrote, quickly understood that the Maya were indicating how to plant crops in a field, rather than the act of mining gold, so they asked if the Maya had manioc, or yuca, as the tuber was called in Cuba by the Caribe Indians who used it to make cassava bread.  Since the Spaniards were in need of fresh provisions and this was the type of bread they were accustomed to eating in Cuba where they had been living for the past ten years, the question makes sense.  Díaz wrote that the Spaniards kept repeating the word yuca as they pantomimed and the Mayans kept saying the world tlatli, or earth, as they pantomimed planting.  Díaz wrote that one Spaniard in the group then must have remembered the two words yuca and tlatli and fused them together into the word yucatan.  When the expedition returned to Cuba, Díaz said that soldier was the one responsible for telling Governor Velazquez that the Indians they encountered on their expedition with Córdoba called their land Yucatan. Governor Velazquez, in turn, reported this exotic name “Yucatan” in his account to the king and queen of Spain, resulting in the name catching on and becoming irrevocably tied to the peninsula.

But, once again, there is the problem of a Nahuatl word (tlatli, or “land”) being used by a Maya to describe something to a Spaniard who only speaks Spanish.  How could that be?  I believe in this case it was by Díaz misremembering the word he heard that the Maya were saying to indicate “dirt” or “earth.”  Díaz was only in Yucatan for a few weeks, all told, but he was later to travel with Hernán Cortés on the conquistador’s famous expedition and war against the Aztecs two years later.  By the time Díaz got around to writing his True History, he must have been at least partially fluent in Nahuatl, judging by the many definitions of Nahuatl words contained in his book. It is easy to mistake an unfamiliar foreign word for one you are familiar with and I believe this is why Díaz later recalled the word he heard as “tlatli” instead of whatever word the Maya were actually saying.

Regardless of however the name “Yucatan” came to be, Córdoba himself never used it to refer to the peninsula.  When he first landed and encountered the Yucatec Mayans, he had a scribe write out a Requerimiento, or document which formally claimed the land for the Spanish Crown, and gave the peninsula the official name of “Santa María de los Remedios.”  The Requerimiento was read out to the assembled Maya and then witnessed and signed by the scribe.  The Yucatec Mayans, however, continued to call their land “u luumil cutz yetel ceh,” or “land of turkeys and deer.”

Copyright 2011 Ric Hajovsky