What do rum and capybaras have in common? Why, the origin of Panama.
A huge thanks to the many people who filled out the Mashed Radish reader survey. I received some incredibly instructive feedback. And as you may have noticed, I’ve already been acting on some of it with my short “Etymologies of the Day” I’m posting during the workweek in addition to my feature posts. Let me know what you think of these at my email, on Twitter, or in the comments section below.
I’ve also randomly selected a survey respondent, who got to choose the etymology for today’s post. Her name’s Maïra – who runs a lovely blog featuring art, Arabic song and poetry, and other cultural reflections. She was curious about the origin of Panama.
An ‘abundance’ of theories
The etymologies of place names, or toponyms, are often shrouded in mystery. That’s because they’re frequently very old, reaching back to ancient, pre-literate peoples. Other times, it’s because colonization wipes out indigenous knowledge and language. Perhaps both apply to the Republic of Panama (República de Panamá), the great, canal-famed, Central American isthmus straddling the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
There are several theories explaining Panama. One thinks it takes its name from a local word for the Panama tree, Sterculia apetala. Another thinks Panama is an indigenous term for “many butterflies,” which descend on the area in summer and apparently greeted some of the early Spanish conquistadors.
The third, and most common, account is that Panama was the name of a small native fishing village and its nearby beach. This Panama is said to mean, appropriately, “abundance of fish” in the Guarani language. (We’ll return to Guarani in a moment.) In 1519, the Spanish founded a major settlement in the village. But in 1671, Welsh pirate and privateer Henry Morgan – who inspired the spiced rum brand name Captain Morgan – sacked and burned the city. What remains of it is Panamá Viejo, or “Old Panama,” around which the modern Panama City was built.
Before the Spanish arrived, the Chibchan, Chocoan, and Cueva peoples lived in Panama. They soon died out, though, thanks to European infectious diseases. Thereafter, some Kuna people, who speak a Chibchan language, moved westward into Panama during colonial conflict. And so it’s said a great Kuna tribal leader, Nele Kantule, derives Panama from the Kuna bannaba/pannaba, “further that way,” possibly a biting joke for what the natives told the Spanish looking for gold.
Loanwords and wordplay
Now, unlike other indigenous languages, Guarani has persevered. An official language of Paraguay and Bolivia, it’s also spoken in parts of Brazil and Argentina. But why would a Guarani word have named a little fishing village thousands of miles away in Central America? That’s not clear, but perhaps the Spanish, whether conquistadors or Jesuit missionaries, tried Guarani as some sort of a lingua franca. Guarani is a Tupi language, whose various tongues have loaned a host of familiar words: buccaneer, capybara, cashew, cayenne, cougar, jaguar, piranha, tapioca, and tapir, among others.
The posh Rio de Janeiro neighborhood Ipanema, as in the song “The Girl from Ipanema,” also comes from the Tupi language. While it might look like Panama, Ipanema may mean the exact opposite: “stinky lake” or “river without fish.”
As for Panama? It lives on in panama hat, attested since 1833. But this fashionable straw hat actually originates in Ecuador. In the 19th century, when the hat’s popularity boomed, shipments stopped off in Panama before spreading abroad, hence their name. Panama is also immortalized in the famous palindrome, A man, a plan, a canal – Panama!, first published in a 1948 edition of the journal Notes and Queries by celebrated wordsmith Leigh Mercer.
Thanks, Maïra, for such a fascinating word choice. If you’re ever curious about the etymology of a word or have your own suggestion, please do drop me a line.