Growing up in Washington State I became accustomed to not only cities and towns, but rivers, bays and other such abundant geographical features which carry names from local indigenous languages. I’m nostalgic for them; I suppose because it’s one of those things that helps me to know that I belong there. After all, the names are difficult to pronounce, so it’s easy to spot a tourist. Just try your hand at the words in the cloud below.
My interest in place names grew when I started going with Kat and her family to their cottage in Nova Scotia where an intriguingly distinctive nomenclature exists. In a normal morning you could drive from Pugwash to Malagash to Tatagamouche. Venture a bit further and you might find yourself in Antigonish, Shubenacadie or Stewiacke. I’m not going to say which of those names are indigenous and which are Scottish — mainly because I don’t know.
Now that we have lived in Caracas for a while I can associate most names to their places. Similar to the Pacific Northwest and Nova Scotia, the Venezuelan vernacular gives tribute to local indigenous cultures, which certainly bolsters its uniqueness.
One fun and obvious grouping would be the -ao names:
It took me a while to pronounce it correctly, but Macaracuay is the neighborhood where I go to practice Capoeira.
For some reason Morrocoy and Mochima are two beaches that I am always getting confused, the former of which is not far from Choroní. However, the most verbally titillating beach is Chichiriviche (pronounced just like it looks).
Now, thanks to my colleague Jesus Cadenas, I can explain some of the names that come from the local native people.
The lovely Chichiriviche is a Carib word that means “the place where our sun rises.” A fitting name for a beach.
Chacao and Caricuao (along with Baruta, Tamanaco, and Guaicaipuro) are all indigenous chiefs who valiantly resisted the Conquistadors.
In 2009 Chavez suggested that Venezuela’s most celebrated natural attractions be referred to by their original names. First and foremost, Angel Falls, which was named after US-born Jimmie Angel (the first to fly over the falls), should be called “Kerepakupai Vená.” In the language of the Pemon people this means “waterfall of the deepest place.”
Similarly, the beloved Avila mountain got its name in part from a wealthy Spanish guy who a long time ago owned most of the land on the mountain. Before that though, it was called “Waraira Repano,” which refers to a legend told by the natives of Caracas. It means “The wave that came from far.” Apparently, the native Indians sinned and the gods tried to punish them by sending a big wave to the town. There was no mountain then. After the Indians asked for forgiveness, the gods transformed the wave into a big rock, which is now the mountain that separates the city from the Caribbean Sea. How cool is that!
Caracas itself is word with indigenous origins. It refers to a type of edible, reddish plant the people used for food. Most people know of the plant as cockscomb, which is a member of the amaranth family. A city named after an edible plant! How’s that for one more reason to like Caracas?