What does Mexico mean?

What does the word Mexico mean? The word “Mexico” comes from the Nahuatl language, which is the native language of the Aztecs. The name “Mexico” is believed to come from the Aztec word “Mēxihco” (“Mexico”).

The Aztecs were actually called Mexica

The people commonly referred to as “Aztecs” are more accurately known as “Mexica.” The term “Aztec” is a more general term used to describe the various Nahuatl-speaking cultures in the central region of Mexico.

The word “mēxihcah” is the plural form of the word “mēxihcatl”. The term “Mēxihco” or “Mēxihcah” (“Mexica”) was originally used to refer to the Mexica people, who were one of the indigenous groups in central Mexico.

The Mexica were one of these Nahuatl-speaking groups, who are best known for their establishment of the Mexica Empire (commonly referred to as the Aztec Empire) and the founding of the city-state Tenochtitlan.

Who were the Aztecs?

The Mexica were a specific group within the broader category of the Aztecs. When discussing the Aztec civilization, it often includes the Mexica and other related Nahuatl-speaking groups that inhabited the same region.

Here are some of the Aztec subgroups:

  • Mexica
  • Texcocans
  • Tlatelolcans
  • Tlacopans
  • Xochimilcans
  • Chalca
  • Altepetl

These are just a few examples of the subgroups within the Aztec culture. Before the Spanish time, the Valley of Mexico was a complex and diverse region with various city-states, each with its own history and characteristics.

When did the Aztecs come to the Valley of Mexico?

The Aztecs arrived in the Valley of Mexico in the 13th century.

The Aztecs, originally Nahua speakers, migrated from northern Mexico and settled in the Valley of Mexico. They were part of a larger group of Nahuatl-speaking peoples that included the Mexica who settled in the region.

In 1325, the Mexica founded Tenochtitlan, on an island in Lake Texcoco. According to the legend, the choice of this place was guided by the god Huitzilopochtli, who indicated the exact location where the city should be built.

The Triple Aztec Alliance

The Mexica were not the only people in the Valley of Mexico. There were other established city-states, such as Tlacopan and Texcoco, and the Mexica had to engage in alliances and conflicts with these neighboring states.

The Aztec Empire, often referred to as the “Aztec Triple Alliance,” was a coalition of 3 major city-states in the Valley of Mexico: Tenochtitlan, Tlacopan (on the left side of the lake), and Texcoco (on the right side of the lake).

These 3 city-states formed a political and military alliance that laid the foundation for the Aztec Empire, which was sometimes informally referred to as the “Aztec Triple Alliance”.

Tenochtitlan was the most dominant of the 3 allied city-states. Texcoco and Tlacopan were important in this alliance which formed the core of the Aztec Empire. Together, they controlled the Valley of Mexico and beyond.

Texcoco Lake in 1519

Tlatelolco, on the other hand, was another city-state located near Tenochtitlan.

Tlatelolco was generally considered a separate entity, closely associated with Tenochtitlan due to its proximity and cultural and economic ties, but it was not one of the 3 principal members of the Aztec Triple Alliance.

Through military conquest and diplomacy, this so-called Atec Triple Alliance, gradually expanded their influence and power, subjugating other city-states and forming a loose empire better known as the Aztec Empire.

They also required tribute from neighboring regions.

Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan

Each of these three city-states within the Aztec Triple Alliance had its own rulers or leaders, and they formed a joint leadership as part of the alliance. City-states Texcoco and Tlacopan had their own rulers (tlatoani).

Montezuma II was the emperor of Tenochtitlan, which was the most prominent city-state within the Aztec Triple Alliance. Texcoco and Tlacopan, the other two members of the Triple Alliance, had their own rulers.

Montezuma was the ruler of Tenochtitlan and held a position of great importance, but he was not the sole ruler of all 3 cities. Each city-state maintained some degree of autonomy while cooperating in the alliance.

The Valley of Mexico was home to numerous city-states, each with its own political structure. The Aztec Triple Alliance, comprising Tenochtitlan, Texcoco, and Tlacopan, was the dominant power among them.

Arrival of the Spaniards

The arrival of the Spaniards in 1519 marked the beginning of the end for the Aztec Empire. Over the next years, the Spanish, along with their native allies, waged a campaign that led to the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521.

The Aztec presence in the Valley of Mexico was relatively short in historical terms, lasting for a just few centuries. The Aztecs left a significant impact on the region, but it was tragically cut short by the Spanish conquest.

Mexico City

The city of Mexico City was built on the ruins of Tenochtitlan by the Spanish conquistadors. Initially, they referred to the city as “Mexico Tenochtitlan” to recognize its connection to the former Aztec (Mexica) Empire.

Over time, the name was gradually shortened to simply “Mexico”.

Valley of Mexico

The whole region where the city of Mexico City is located, known as the Valley of Mexico, already had a name before the Spanish arrived. It was referred to as the “Valley of Mexico” or “Valle de México” in Spanish.

This name was used to describe the geographical area, which encompasses the valley and the surrounding region, including the lake systems and various city-states, including Tenochtitlan and other city-states.

It was a significant and well-populated region in Mesoamerica. The Spanish retained this name for the region and, in some cases, referred to it as the “Valley of Mexico” while establishing their colonial presence there.

New Spain

New Spain (“Nueva España”) was the name given to the Spanish colonial territory in the Americas that encompassed much of present-day Mexico and parts of Central America, the southwestern USA, and the Caribbean.

The term “New Spain” was used during the colonial period, primarily from the early 16th century to the early 19th century when the region was under Spanish rule.

New Spain is mistaken as the old name for México, rather than the name of a large expanse of land that covered much of North America and included the Caribbean and the Philippines.

Since New Spain was not actually a state or a contiguous part of land, in modern times it would have been a Jurisdiction under the command of the authorities in modern Mexico City.

Under the Spaniards, Mexico was both the name of the capital and its sphere of influence, most of which exists as Greater Mexico City and the State of Mexico. Some parts of Puebla, Morelos, and Hidalgo were also part of Spanish-era Mexico.

The area known as New Spain was one of the most important and wealthy colonies of the Spanish Empire. It included significant indigenous civilizations, such as the Aztecs and Maya, and played a central role in the Spanish colonial system.

The capital of New Spain was Mexico City, which was built on the ruins of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

In 1821, following the Mexican War of Independence, Mexico gained its independence from Spain, and New Spain ceased to exist as a Spanish colony. Mexico became a sovereign nation, and the colonial era came to an end.

How did Mexico get its name?

As far back as 1590, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum atlas showed that the northern part of the New World was known as “America Mexicana” (Mexican America), as México City was the seat of the New Spain viceroyalty.

The official name of the country has changed as the form of government has changed. The Declaration of Independence was signed on November 6, 1813, by the deputies of the Congress of Anáhuac called the territory América Septentrional (Northern America).

On two occasions (1821–1823 and 1863–1867), the country was known as Imperio Mexicano (Mexican Empire).

In 1821, the continental part of New Spain seceded from Spain during the Trienio Liberal, in which Agustin de Iturbide marched triumphantly with his Army of the Three Guarantees (religion, independence, and unity).

This was followed by the birth of the short-lived Mexican Empire that used the “Mexico” name according to the convention used previously by the Roman Empire (Imperium Romanum) and the Holy Roman Empire, whereby the capital gave rise to the name of the Empire.

This was the first recorded use of “Mexico” as a country title.

After the Empire fell and the Republic was established in 1824, a Federation name form was adopted; which was, at most times, more de jure than de facto. The Mexican name stuck, leading to the formation of the Mexican Republic which formally is known as the United Mexican States.

Complications arose with the capital’s former colloquial and semi-official name “Ciudad de Mexico, Distrito Federal” or “Mexico, D.F.”, which appears on postal addresses and is frequently cited in the media, thus creating a duplication whereas the shortened name was “Mexico, D.F., Mexico”. Legally, the name was simply Distrito Federal (Federal District or District of the Federation).

This ended with the change in the statute of Mexico City into a state in 2016. Today it’s officially called only “Ciudad de México, México” abbreviated CDMX, Mexico.

The official name of the country is the “United Mexican States” (Estados Unidos Mexicanos), since it is a federation of thirty-two states.

The official name was first used in the Constitution of 1824 and was retained in the Constitutions of 1857 and 1917. Informally, “Mexico” is used along with “Mexican Republic” (República Mexicana).

All three federal constitutions (1824, 1857, and 1917, the current constitution) used the name Estados Unidos Mexicanos – or the variant Estados-Unidos Mexicanos, all of which have been translated as “United Mexican States”.

The phrase República Mexicana, “Mexican Republic”, was used in the 1836 Constitutional Laws.

On 22 November 2012, outgoing Mexican President Felipe Calderón proposed changing the official name of the country to simply México.

Names of the country

Anahuac (“land surrounded by water”) was the name in Nahuatl given to what is now Mexico during pre-Hispanic times.

When the Spanish conquistadors besieged México-Tenochtitlan in 1521, it was almost completely destroyed. It was rebuilt during the following three years, after which it was designated as a municipality and capital of the vice-royalty of New Spain.

In 1524 the municipality of Mexico City was established, known as México Tenochtitlan, and as of 1585 became officially known simply Ciudad de México.

The name Mexico was used only to refer to the city, and later to a province within New Spain. It was not until the independence of the vice-royalty of New Spain that “Mexico” became the traditional and conventional short-form name of the country.

During the 1810s, different insurgent groups advocated and fought for the independence of the vice-royalty of New Spain. This vast territory was composed of different intendencias and provinces, successors of the kingdoms, and captaincies general administered by the vice-regal capital of Mexico City.

In 1813, the deputies of the Congress of Anahuac signed the document Acta Solemne de la Declaración de Independencia de la América Septentrional, (“Solemn Act of the Declaration of Independence of Northern America”).

In 1814 the Supreme Congress of the revolutionary forces that met at Apatzingán (in today’s state of Michoacán) drafted the first constitution. In 1814 the name América Mexicana (“Mexican America”) was chosen for the country.

The head of the insurgent forces, however, was defeated by the royalist forces, and the constitution was never enacted.

Servando Teresa de Mier, in a treatise written in 1820 in which he discussed the reasons why New Spain was the only overseas territory of Spain that had not yet secured its independence, chose the term Anáhuac to refer to the country.

This term, in Nahuatl, was used by the Mexica to refer to the territory they dominated.

According to some linguists, “Anáhuac” means “near or surrounded by waters”, probably in reference to Lake Texcoco, even though it was also the word used to refer to the world or the terrestrial universe (as when used in the phrase Cem Anáhuac, “the entire earth”) and in which their capital, Mexico-Tenochtitlan, was at the center and at the same time at the center of the waters, being built on an island in a lake.

In September 1821, the independence of Mexico was finally recognized by Spain, achieved through an alliance of royalist and revolutionary forces. The former tried to preserve the status quo of the vice-royalty, menaced by the liberal reforms taking place in Spain, through the establishment of an autonomous constitutional monarchy under an independence hero.

Agustín was crowned and given the title of Agustin de Iturbide, primer Emperador Constitucional de Mexico (Agustín de Iurbide First Constitutional Emperor of Mexico by Divine Providence and by the Congress of the Nation).

The name chosen for the country was Imperio Mexicano, “Mexican Empire”. The empire collapsed in 1823, and the republican forces drafted a constitution the following year whereby a federal form of government was instituted.

In the 1824 constitution, which gave rise to the Mexican federation, the Mexican United States, was adopted as the country’s official name.

The constitution of 1857 used the term República Mexicana (Mexican Republic) interchangeably with Estados Unidos Mexicanos; the current constitution, promulgated in 1917, only uses the latter and the United Mexican States is the normative English translation.

The name “Mexican Empire” was briefly revived from 1863 to 1867 by the conservative government that instituted a constitutional monarchy for a second time under Maximilian of Habsburg.

The country’s name is not really Mexico, at least not officially. After gaining independence from Spain in 1821, Mexico officially became the “United Mexican States.”

The American independence movement had inspired Mexican leaders of that era and since Mexico, in fact, also was a territory composed of states, the name stuck and became official in 1824.

But the reality is the official name is used only by Mexican officials who deal with diplomatic protocol and official documents pertaining to international relations. For the rest of Mexicans – and the world – the country is simply known as Mexico.

There was a proposal in 2012 by President Felipe Calderón to change the country’s name to simply “Mexico,” but it did not go into effect at that time. Therefore, the official name remained the “United Mexican States.”

Phonetic evolution

The Nahuatl word Mēxihco (pronounced as “meshiko”), was transliterated as “México” using Medieval Spanish orthography, in which the letter “x” represented the voiceless postalveolar fricative “sh”, making “México” pronounced as “Meshiko”.

At the time, the Spanish letter “j” represented the voiced postalveolar fricative, like the English “s” in “vision”).

However, by the end of the 15th century “j” had evolved into a voiceless palatal-alveolar sibilant as well, and thus both x and j represented the same sound “sh”. During the 16th century, this sound evolved into a voiceless velar fricative, like the “ch” in Scottish “loch”), and México began to be pronounced as “Mehiko”.

Given that both x and j represented the same new sound “x”, and in lack of a spelling convention, many words that originally had the “sh” sound, began to be written with “j”.

The Real Academia Española, the institution in charge of regulating the Spanish language, was established in 1713, and its members agreed to simplify spelling and set j to represent /x/ regardless of the original spelling of the word, and x to represent /ks/.

Nevertheless, there was ambivalence in the application of this rule in Mexican toponyms: México was used alongside Méjico, Texas and Tejas, Oaxaca and Oajaca, Xalixco and Jalisco, etc., as well as in proper and last names: Xavier and Javier, Ximénez and Jiménez, Roxas and Rojas are spelling variants still used today.

In any case, the spelling Méjico for the name of the country is little used in Mexico or the rest of the Spanish-speaking world today. The Real Academia Española itself recommends the spelling “México”.

In present-day Spanish, México is pronounced “Meksiko” or Mehiko”, the latter pronunciation used mostly in dialects of southern Mexico, the Caribbean, much of Central America, and some places in South America.

Normative spelling in Spanish

México is the predominant Spanish spelling variant used throughout Latin America and universally used in Mexican Spanish, whereas Méjico is used infrequently in Spain and Argentina.

During the 1990s, the Real Academia Española recommended that México be the normative spelling of the word and all its derivatives, even though this spelling does not match the pronunciation of the word.

The majority of publications adhere to the new norm in all Spanish-speaking countries even though the disused variant can still be found.

The same rule applies to all Spanish toponyms in America, and on some occasions in the Iberian Peninsula, even though in most official or regional languages of Spain and Portuguese, the “x” is still pronounced as “sh”.

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