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Etymologies of Latin American Countries

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The name Argentina is derived from the Latin argentum, which means "silver." The region's Río de la Plata (Silver River) was used by Early Spanish and Portuguese traders to transport treasures (including silver) from Peru to the Atlantic. The land around the river stations eventually became known as La Argentina (The Land of Silver).[1]


Bolivia was named after Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), who was an anti-Spanish militant. He became the first president of Bolivia after the country gained its independence in 1825. His surname comes from La Puebla de Bolibar, a village in Biscay, Spain. Bolibar might be composed of bolu- ("mill") + -ibar ("river"), meaning “mill on a river.”[1]


In Portuguese, the brazilwood tree was called pau-brasil, because its red wood resembled the color of hot embers (called brasa in Portuguese). This tree may have given the country its name, but another theory states it came from the Irish myth of Hy-Brazil, a phantom island. During the 15th century, many expeditions searched for the imaginary island. When Brazil was reached by Pedro Álvares Cabral (1500 A.D.), the Irish myth was well-known.[1]


Chile’s name is most likely related to it’s unusual geographic formations. The Andes mountain chain rises high above the narrow flatland along the coast. The name might mean ‘the depths,’ having been inspired by a native Mapudungun term. The Quechua or Mapuche Indian word chili means “where the land ends” or “limit of the world.” Finally, the native word tchili, means “snow.”[1]


Columbia was named after the explorer Christopher Columbus, though he never visited the country. [1]


Ecuador means "Equator" in Spanish—fittingly named since the country lies on the Equator.[1]


Paraguay likely got its name from the Paraguay River—though the meaning of the word is unknown. One of explanation is that Paraguay means "water of the Payagua,” as he Payagua was a native tribe. It is possible, instead, that it’s derived from the Tupi-Guarani words para (river) and guai (crown), thus crowned river. An additional interpretation can be drawn from para (river), gua (from), i (water), in other words, "river that comes from the water" – a reference to the bog in Brazil, just north of the country.[1]


The name Peru might come from the native word biru (river). Or, it might be derived from the Beru, the name of an Indian chieftain. When Spanish explorers asked him the name of the land, he assumed they were asking for his own name, Beru. Another possibility is that it’s related to the old native name of the region: Pelu.[1]


Like Paraguay, Uruguay was named for the local river. The official name of the country, Republica Oriental del Uruguay, references its position as “oriental” (east) of the river. The word “Uruguay” might come from the Guaraní word urugua (shellfish) and i (water), thus, “river of shellfish.” Uruguay could also come from into three Guaraní words: uru (a species of bird), gua (to proceed from) and i (water), thus, the uru that comes from the water.[1]


Venezuela is diminutive form of Venezia, meaning Little Venice. Early explorers, Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, were reminded of Venice when they saw the native stilt-houses on Lake Maracaibo. [1]

Clarissa Caldwell


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