What All Those Spanish Place Names Mean

I have relatives who live in the “mouse mouth” of a state whose name means “flowery.”

Do most of the people in Boca Raton, Florida even know? How about those people living in Amarillo, Santa Fe, San Antonio, or Palo Alto?

I didn’t know what half of them were myself before I really started learning Spanish. So if you’re in the same boat, here’s a cheat sheet you can follow next time you’re traveling through the American Southwest or heading off to Latin America.

San or Santa = saint or holy, as in San Francisco (St. Francis) or Santa Fe (Holy Faith)

Costa = coast, as in Costa Rica (Delicious Coast, sorta), or Costa Mesa (Table Coast, sorta)

Puerto = port, as in Puerto Escondido (Hidden Port).

Buena/Buenos = Good, as in Buena Vista (Good View) or Buenos Aires (Good Air).

Monte/MontaƱa – Mountain, as in Monteverde (Green Mountain) or the state of Montana

Palo = stick or stump, as in Palo Alto (High Stick)

Del = of the, as in Del Rio (Of the River)

Amarillo = yellow, Colorado = red, Alamo is a poplar tree.

Cruces = crosses, so Las Cruces (The Crosses), NM

Of course there are many others that don’t take much effort to figure out: Los Angeles (The Angels), Sacramento (Sacrament), Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), El Paso (The Pass), Los Gatos (The Cats), Lima (Lime).

Funny enough though, Las Vegas, Nevada is “The Fertile Plains, Snowfall.” That map man was wasted!

  1. Linda

    I can’t believe Amarillo is just yellow. I lived in Texas for years and never knew this. I feel like an idiot.

  2. Ron Mader

    The old joke goes that Texas wanted to change all of the place names into English. ‘San Antonio’ would become ‘Saint Anthony’ and ‘Corpus Christi’ would become ‘Body of Christ.’ The the idea came to a halt when officials contemplated renaming ‘Tornillo’ to ‘Screw’ Texas.

    • tim

      I hadn’t heard that one Ron—very funny! So what’s Oaxaca mean and what language is that?

  3. Michael Olenick

    I just went to Boca Raton and told my grandmother this and she seemed very insulted! At least the weather in the rat’s mouth was better than the snow in NJ!

  4. oriol morillo

    “rico” means rich, puerto rico = rich port, costa rica = rich coast

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