What Does Mexico Mean?

David Bowles
4 min readAug 29, 2017

Mexico comes from the Spanish “México,” a name derived from the Classical Nahuatl “Mēxihco,” a kingdom that encompassed most of the western shores of Lake Tetzcohco, Lake Xāltocān, and Lake Tzompanco, ruled from the famous island on which the twin cities of Tenōchtitlan and Tlatelōlco were established.

The “x” of Mēxihco is pronounced like English “sh.” The line above the “e” indicates that it is long (held twice the duration of a normal “e,” like the difference between the vowels in “bed” and “bet”). The “h” stands for a glottal stop (a sort of hitch in the back of the throat). “Mēxihco” breaks down into the root “mēxih” and the suffix of place “-co.” The meaning of “mēxih” is debated, though if we add the absolute suffix to the root (in order to make it a normal noun), we get something like mēxihtli or mēxitl. But what does that mean? There’s the rub.

Glyphs for the three city-states that made up the Triple Alliance. “Mexico” is actually “Tenōchtitlan” here.

The people we call Aztecs were principally governed by the inhabitants of Mēxihco Tenōchtitlan (the full name of Mexico City in Nahuatl). They called themselves Mēxihcah or Tenōchcah and claimed that before settling in the Valley of Mexico they had been known as the Mexihtin. This ethnonym, they affirmed, was derived either from the name of the leader who guided them out of the mythical land of Aztlan, Mecihtli (“agave hare”), or from Mēxihtli, a title of the tribal god Huitzilopochtli.

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David Bowles

A Mexican American author & translator from South Texas. Teaches literature & Nahuatl at UTRGV. VP of the Texas Institute of Letters.