Jun 022010

We are delighted to publish a series of guest blogs by independent researcher Fatimah Araneta.

Fatimah Araneta grew up in Mexico City. After gaining a Masters in City Planning at Berkeley, California, she opted to eschew city life and direct her energy and attention to living in tune with what’s left of Mother Earth before it all gets paved over and criss-crossed with cabled and non-cabled networks. She lives “off the grid” in the shadow of the volcano she prefers to call Chicnautécatl.

Part 1 How Mexico’s fourth highest peak (Chicnautécatl) got its name


Mexico’s fourth highest peak is an extinct volcano that rises elegantly above the city of Toluca. It is generally referred to as “el Nevado”, which is short for “el Volcán Nevado de Toluca”, Toluca’s Snow-Covered Volcano. Nowadays, however, the name is sadly inaccurate since the volcano is hardly ever covered in snow.

El Nevado is also known as Xinantécatl[1]. This name first appeared in an official registry in the second half of the nineteenth century. It sounds like Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but historians have debated at length about its origin and meaning, questioning its authenticity. The closest place name that bears any etymological resemblance is the town of Zinacantepec, “Hill Where There Are Bats”. However, the volcano does not possess a significant bat population, and Zinacantepec is only one of dozens of small towns that surround it.

It is possible that the original name in Nahuatl had really been Chicnautécatl, “Nine Peaks”. This would dovetail nicely with the Lerma River’s old Nahuatl name of Chicnahuapan, “Nine Rivers”. The River Lerma is the result of the confluence of several streams that spring from the sides of the volcano.

An explanation offered by García Martínez of how “Chicnautécatl” could have become “Xinantécatl” is a not-so-farfetched series of errors, considering the lack of a basic alphabet in Nahuatl. It could all boil down to how the name was pronounced by one person, written down by a second, and later read and copied, or rather miscopied, by a third.

The number nine in nahuatl is “chicnaui” and that is how it is generally written now, but it can be pronounced “shicnaui” as well as “chicnaui”. It is possible that one person informed a second that the volcano was called “Chicnautécatl”, pronouncing it with a “sh” sound, and the one who listened wrote an “X” for the beginning “sh” sound (the Castilian alphabet has no letter for the “sh” sound). So, it may have been registered as “Xinautécatl”. Then, according to this line of thought, a third person misread the name, mistaking the “u” for an “n”, or miscopied it, writing an “n” instead of the “u”, thus giving rise to “Xinantécatl”.

However it may have been, the volcano is still more often referred to as “el Nevado”.

Fortunately, the origins of most place names in Mexico are more straightforward and comprehensible. The next part of this article examines why many Mexican place names have up to four distinct layers of meaning.

[1] In Mexican Spanish, the “x” can be pronounced “s” as in sun, “sh” as in shoe, “h” as in hat, or “x” as in taxi. In the case of “Xinantécatl” it is pronounced “s”.

Click on the word “placenames” or the “placenames” tag for more articles about Mexico’s place names.

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