Home Columns The origin of the word “Yucatan”.

The origin of the word “Yucatan”.

by Yucatan Times

The Yucatan Times welcomes acclaimed anthropologist and historian Dr. Jorge Victoria who as of this Monday, January 20 2020, will be presenting a weekly column named: “Brushstrokes of History”.  

There are multiple hypothesis and stories regarding how the name was given to these lands when the Spaniards arrived.

The first one, comes from the trip of Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1517. Another one points out to Francisco López de Gómara in 1552 in Cabo Catoche when the Spaniards asked some men what the name of the town was and they said “tectetan”, which would roughly translate to “I don’t understand you”. They thought it was called that way, and, corrupting the word, they called that land Yucatan.

Diego de Landa refers in 1566 that when Hernandez de Cordoba arrived at Cabo Catoche he asked the local people for directions and the name of the place and they answered “ciuthan” which means something like “to say – to speak”. The Hispanics understood that it was called Yucatan.

For his part, Bernal Díaz del Castillo, indicated in 1632, that in a conversation between indigenous people they brought to Havana and some Spaniards, the Mayans indicated that their land was called “tlati” apparently, the Spaniards understood that they –the indigenous– knew the yucca plant that was on that island.

This association and confusion gave rise to the idea that the conquistadors indicated that the land from which these people came from was called Yucatlan. Bernal Díaz del Castillo even points out: “The governor of Cuba asked me if I wanted to return to Yucatlan, and laughing I answered: who named it that way? they don’t call it like that over there. And he told me that the Indians we brought (Julianillo and Melchorejo) said so”.

On the indigenous side, the Chronicle of Chac Xulub Chac does not mention the origin of the name given to the region, but the Mayan author attributes it to Francisco de Montejo “El Adelantado”, conqueror of Yucatan, when he notes: “Montejo asked in the language of Castile for the Christians… if the water had entered their heads”. The Mayans did not understand what he meant and in response, used these words: “Ma’anaatik ka t’ann” which means “We do not understand your words”. And so, it was how it became known as “Yucatan” — the land of the wild turkey and the deer–“.

No doubt the text added the already widespread idea of the origin of the name, without knowing exactly who coined it or where.

It is also colloquially believed that the name Yucatan originated during the first exploration by the Hispanics, the result of a misunderstanding between the Mayan inhabitants and the conquistadors.

One of the most popular current versions says that it was the consequence of a Hispanic questioning a Mayan to know the name of the region, to which the native responded: “Ma’anaatik ka t’ann”, which in the Yucatecan Mayan language means I don’t understand your speech or I don’t understand you”.

Another version indicates that the Spaniards gave the name of Yucatan to the region because the Mayans answered their questions with the expression “Uh yu ka t’ann”, which in Mayan means “listen how they speak”, and the Spaniards understood Yucatan.

As we can see, in spite of the diverse versions, the doubt still remains about the word or phrase that generated the designation of the name; however, it is very interesting that the name with which the peninsular region would be known, was the product of the impossibility of communication during the encounter of those two different worlds.

 Source: J. Victoria Ojeda, “El arribo de los españoles a la península de Yucatán y el inicio del cambio del paisaje biocultural de la región en el siglo XVI”, Boletín Americanista, year 1, no. 78, Barcelona, 2019.


For The Yucatan Times
Jorge Victoria Ojeda Ph.D
Anthropologist, historian, investigator, author.

With a doctorate in anthropology from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and a Ph.D. in History from Universitat Jaume I, Castellón, in Spain, Jorge Victoria has been the technical subdirector of the General Archive of the State of Yucatan, the head of the Historical Archive of Merida and the director of the Museum of Popular Art of Yucatan. He is currently a professor and works in the Social Sciences Unit of the Regional Research Center of the Autonomous University of Yucatan.

Dr. Victoria has published fifteen books and numerous articles in Mexico and abroad.

His research on “piracy and pirates in the Yucatan Peninsula” and “Africans and Afro-descendants” has earned him international awards and recognition.

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Carmen January 31, 2021 - 3:36 am

Hi. I’m curious as to why many English speakers refer to Yucatan as “the Yucatan “. Other Mexican states are not referred yo as “the …”. For example, they say Jalisco, not “the Jalisco”.
Thank you

Paul K April 13, 2022 - 10:47 pm

I’d guess that’s because of the phrase “Yucatan Peninsula”, which is more specific than a state, and leads you to preface it with “the”.

Lars H Alhaug October 17, 2023 - 4:03 am

The name Yucatan is to me interresting. If it is derived from a misunderstanding of language, so be it, but there is a name in the Bible, Yoctan that has caught my curiosity. Shem was one of the three sons of Noah. He is the forfather of the Shemites (Semites). One of Shem’s sons was Arpakhshad. One of his grandsons was Ever/Eber (The forfather of the Hebrews). Ever was the father of Peleg ,because in his days people started spreading all over the Earth. And now, his brother’s name was Yoktan. Remember this was a time of human history, after the flood, that man started spreading themselves over the Earth.
Yoktan fathered 13 sons. Could one or more of them have sailed to America? Solomon, the King of Israel sailed to Ofir to get gold. Ofir was one of the sons of Yoktan, The voyage took three years. All this according to the Bible.
Were America (the continents) inhabited by the Peleg/Yoktan decendants?
I just mention this…


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