So–What’s in a Name, You Ask?

So–What’s in a name, you ask?  Many – unlike Juliet – will answer, “Everything!”  It defines us and our actions, and in Akumal and the Riviera Maya we are presented with names of  things of which many of us know very little.  This writer is limited in language skills: English, yes; Spanish, very little.  But what fascinates me is the names of things in Maya…like the names of villas, casas, condos, businesses, and tourist attractions in Akumal and the Yucatan Peninsula.  My curiosity led me to talk with Pablo de la Cruz Contreras Pech who grew up speaking Maya and Spanish in his home in the pueblo of Kantunil as well as from friends, neighbors, and other family members.

Pablo and wife, Neri
Pablo and wife, Neri

Most of us are familiar with the translation of Akumal which means “place of the turtle.”  But where did the name, “Yucatan,” derive?  Legend has it that the early Spanish asked the name of this area.  The Maya natives responded with this phrase, “Uma’ Anaatik Ka t’ann.”  Translation is, “I do not understand you.”  Sound it out–you will get to “Yucatan.”

Here’s Pablo’s translation of just a few of frequently seen Maya words and his translation as he grew up using the Mayan language:

Yal Ku Cai–where small fish live in safety  (Yal refers to baby; Ku refers to a hole; and Cai refers to a fish)

Yool Caanal–movement of the ocean

Lol Kana’ab– flowers of the ocean


Nicte Ha–name of many different flowers; also refers to the flora de Mayo (May flower)

Ina Tan Kanab–the air that hits your face coming from the ocean

Balam Ek–jaguar (black tiger)

Nai Na–your home

Lol Ha–water lily

(Super) Chomak–raccoon


Chichen Itza–cenote where a girl goes into the subterranean river; her boyfriend goes after her, and they come back to land via a new cenote (source of water)

Coba–little rat lives in the ground and burrows to the roots of a plant and eats these roots–(sorta’ means to use the teeth)

Holbox–black hole

Boxito–expression for calling to young kids–no reference to color

Cozumel–a bird’s nest (little home for a small bird)

Cancun–snake’s home

Ixchel (Boutique)–name of a Maya goddess of fertility

Kantunil–yellow rock

Please keep in mind that this writer has limited Spanish, so translating some of Pablo’s words explaining Maya may have incorporated poetic license; however, his English is far better than my Spanish.

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