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Mexicolore contributor Scott Hadley

Aztec Surnames: a Modern Link to a Proud Hertiage

We’re very grateful to a good friend of ours, Scott Hadley - teacher, researcher, student of Nahuatl and resident of San Andrés, Cholula - for this unusual, refreshing and personal study of Nahuatl surnames from Cholula, many of which will not have changed for centuries...

Pic 1: Cover and first page of the 1973 Horcasitas article
Pic 1: Cover and first page of the 1973 Horcasitas article (Click on image to enlarge)

This article explores an interesting branch of what is technically called “anthroponymy,” or rather, the study of personal names. In particular, we are going to look at the Aztec or Nahuatl surnames that still exist in the territories where Nahuatl was either spoken at one time or still is today. Back in 1973, the distinguished mexicanist Fernando Horcasitas wrote an article that provides a very thorough look at this fascinating subject and thus it is also the basis for this introduction.
First, he describes the prehispanic system of name giving and divides it into five key categories. To begin with, there were the calendar names or tonaltoca which literally translates as “day names.” These names were given by an Aztec astrologer and usually signified the birth date of the child or the date of some other important observance surrounding the birth. Next there was the tlalticpactoca or “world name.” These can be based on natural phenomena like a comet (citlalpopoca or “star that smokes”) that coincided with the child’s birth. Also names of gods can be used like Tlaloc, Tlaltecuhtli etc., and these were used until the very late era of the Aztecs. Names can also be associated with toponyms or place names and they usually end in -tecatl which means an inhabitant of a certain place. Such examples can be found in names like Zempoaltecatl which designates someone who is from the ancient city of Zempoala (also spelled Cempoala) and Xochitecatl which indicates that someone is from Xochitlan (Horcasitas 1973:277). Finally some names can also be given after infancy to indicate a title or other honor that the person had acquired in his or her lifetime.

Pic 2: Patio de los altares, main pyramid, Cholula, with the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedies on the hilltop
Pic 2: Patio de los altares, main pyramid, Cholula, with the church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedies on the hilltop (Click on image to enlarge)

However, Horcasitas warns us that none of the surnames that survive today are the product of this complex system but are only the relics of the past that have been handed down from generation to generation without many of their owners being aware of their historic origin or meaning. He also prophesied back in 1973 that many of these surnames would disappear before long due to the pressure that the indigenous people experience when trying to mainstream themselves into a modern world. However, I have happily seen nothing of the kind as I explore graveyards, signs with the names of the sponsors for local festivities, names of political candidates on posters and even class lists with the names of my English students. Thus, these surnames to me are very living relics that are visible every day even though they have a mysterious past in many cases. In the list below, I have mainly limited my sources to names found in Cholula and its environs although names from other places will crop up like the names from class lists which belong to students from other areas. It is not a very scholarly list but, it is a very personal one that is the product of my own informal field work. The translations of the names in brackets come from Horcasitas, the capsules of a local radio station and my own elementary knowledge of the language. If a translation is in doubt, I place a question mark next to it. In short, it is a list that is more of an expression of my appreciation and interest for the Nahuatl language and it is hoped that it can be used to encourage people to preserve this fascinating heritage for future generations.

*Coyopol (Click on image to enlarge)

Nahuatl Surnames from Cholula

Aca (Short for acatl cane?)
Acxotlan 1761 (Appears in the Puebla phonebook for 2008 as “Axotlan”)
Amaxal (paper made of sand; Acatepec; south of Cholula found in Axocotzin Radio)
Azcatl (ant: Horcasitas 1973:274 )
Chapul (variation of Chapulin below?)
Chapulin (from grasshopper)
Coatl (serpent)
Cocolo (same as below? Cocollo can also mean something thin and dry)
Cocolotl (angry; found in Horcasitas 1973:278)
Coyol (variaton of Coyoli meaning rattle? found in Horcasitas 1973:279)
Coyopotl (variation of *Coyopol? thick coyote; found in Axocotzin Radio)

*Cuautli (Click on image to enlarge)

Cuahtzon, Cuatzo (head of hair; Acatepec, south of Cholula; found in Axocotzin Radio)
(from quauhtli or eagle)
(wind; found in Axocotzin Radio)

*Huepa (Click on image to enlarge)

(big fire; found in Horcasitas 1973:278)
Huitztlacatl (a thorny man; found in Horcasitas 1973:278)
Itzcoatl (obsidian serpent)
Itzcua (variation of Itzcoatl?)
Itzmoyotl (obsidian mosquito; found in a source from 1891)
Maxil (from Náhuatl? Someone with that name insists it is Mayan instead of Nahuatl)
(my ocelot?)
Ocotoxtle (variation of Ocotoztle or mountain lion? Found in Horcasitas 1973:274)

*Tecaxco (Click on image to enlarge)

(strongbox made out of woven palm)
(from tecaxitli “pila de piedra o cosa semejante”/”a stone container especially for water” [Molina])
Tecualt/Tecuatl (from tequaltili “Cosa que haze bueno a otro/“Something that does something good to something else” [Molina])
Tecuampil (from tequampiltontli “cachorro de león, o hijo de bestia fiera”/A lion cub or a child from a wild beast [Molina])
Tecuanhuehue (Old tiger?)
Tentle (from tentli “los labrios, o el borde, o orilla de alguna cosa,”/”The lips or the edge or the bank of something” [Molina])
Teotl (god)

*Tepetl (Click on image to enlarge)

*Tepanecatl (Or Tecpanecatl. A now extinct mesoamerican people from the southwest of the Valle de México. Grijalbo 1997. Found in Horcasitas (1973:278) who translates it as “he who lives in a palace.”)
*Tepetl (hill)
*Tepeyahuitl (combination of tepetl hill and yauitl or yahuitl black corn?)
Tepontla (from tepontli chinche? Bedbug?)
Tetzopa (“cerrar boueda”/“close up a dome” [Molina])
Teutle (from tecutli, lord; found in Axocotzin Radio)
Tlachi (one who sees; found in Axocotzin Radio)
(earthquake; from Acatepec, south of Cholula. Found in Horcasitas 1973:278)
Tlapa (medicinal plant and also a toponym from the state of Guerrero)
Tlapaltotoli (a small red and grey bird; found in Horcasitas 1973:274)

*Tepetl *Tecpanecatl
*Tepetl *Tecpanecatl (Click on image to enlarge)

Tlapanco (“en el açotea”/“on the roof” [Molina])
(to speak)
Tocal (Our house? Tlaxcalancingo 1869, southeast of Cholula)
Tochihuilt (variation of Tochihuitl?)
*Tochimani (multitude of rabbits? tochtli or tochin + mani; Clavijero says that the verb mani means a state of being a multitude when referring to men or beasts. 1974:101)
(from tototzinli revered or small bird)
*Cuacuas (he or she will bite?)
*Toxqui (a rabbit belonging to someone; found in Axocotzin Radio)
Toxtle (from tochtli or tochin a rabbit)

*Toxqui *Cuacuas
*Toxqui *Cuacuas (Click on image to enlarge)

Xicale, xicali (from xicalli pitcher or gourd)
(someone from Xochitlán)
Zacatzontetl (çacatzontetl o çacatzuntetl césped [Molina])
Zempoaltecatl (inhabitant of Zempoala or Cempoala, an ancient city in Veracruz.)
(from citlalli, citlali, or citlalin star)

From the graveyard on the Zapotecas hill to the west of Cholula:-


From Tlaxcalancingo (southeast of Cholula:-)

(head of hair)
(Variation of Ocotoztle or mountain lion? Found in Horcasitas 1973:274)

*Tochimani (Click on image to enlarge)

Miscellaneous names from class lists and other sources:-

Ahuatl (thorn; found in Horcasitas 1973:273)
Atenco (at the edge of the water; Franco 1976:46)
Atzin (reverential or diminutive for “atl” water)
(Santa Clara Ocoyucan, Puebla South of Cholula )
(coconeh; plural of conetl child)

*Tepeyahuitl (Click on image to enlarge)

Cuatlapantzi (cloven head; a hill in Tlaxcala that is round but cloven at the top. I can’t remember my source)
Cuautle (from quauhtli or eagle)
(variation of huexolotl or turkey? From Santa Isabel, Cholula. a southern section of Cholula)
Ixejuatl, Ixehuatl
(the white woman. named after the volcano with the same name)
Michimani (multitude of fish? michin + mani Clavijero says that the verb mani means a state of being a multitude when referring to men or beasts. 1974:101)

*Tecpanecatl (Click on image to enlarge)

(from popotl straw?)
Popoca (one who smokes; found in: Axocotzin Radio)
(reverential or diminutive for techalotl or squirrel)
(big sandal? found in: Axocotzin Radio)

*Xicale (Click on image to enlarge)

Tepetzi (reverential or diminutive of tepetl or stone)
Tepox/Tepoz (from tepoztli metal; found in Axocotzin Radio)
Texca (from texcalli or crag?)
(from tetzontli: porous volcanic rock used in construction)
Timal (one who is filled up or crammed. Found in Horcasitas 1973:278)
Tlacotia (from Nealtican west of Cholula.)
Tlahque (from Cuautlancingo; a western section of Cholula)

*Xicotenco (Click on image to enlarge)

(our flesh?)
Tuxpan (A place where there are rabbits; also a toponym formed from tochtli or tochin, rabbit and the locative suffix –pan [Montemayor 2009])
Xahuentitla (between the pools or springs, from xahuen pool or spring and the suffix –titla between)
Xaltenco (at the edge of the sand?)
(Horcasitas1973 believes it to be “Flowery God”)
(variation of Xahuentitla?)

Mural in the Municipal Palace, Cholula, showing Malinche (Malintzin)
Mural in the Municipal Palace, Cholula, showing Malinche (Malintzin) (Click on image to enlarge)

From Acuexcomac (a town to the west of Cholula):-

(found on an old painting signed “D. Salbador Guauchoca”)
(to speak)
Chalchi (short for chalchihuitl or jade? From the town of Xalitzintla, the last town before getting to Paso de Cortez between the volcanoes Iztacccihuatl and Popocatepetl)
Xoletl (San Nicolás de los Ranchos, which is just east of Xalitzintla, mentioned above)
Tecuapetla (probably from Acuexcomac)

Reproduction of mural of the pulque drinkers from 200 CE, Cholula
Reproduction of mural of the pulque drinkers from 200 CE, Cholula (Click on image to enlarge)

Other names from the class lists of my colleague Maricarmen Martínez Morales:-

(another form of xicalli pitcher or gourd?)

Other names from the Axocotzin Radio Capsules, Tlaxcalancingo, Puebla that are not mentioned above:-

Band 7
Tlaxcaltecatl (dominion of Tlaxcala or inhabitant of Tlaxcala)
band 19
Cuamani (offering of a head)
band 22
Toxcoyoa (The place of the rabbit coyote)
Coyotl (coyote)
Tecanhuey (big sandal)

Patio de los altares, Cholula
Patio de los altares, Cholula (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally, I include this inscription from a painting which offers an interesting spelling of Tonanzintla, a town south of Cholula whose name translates as: “place where our Dear Mother is worshipped” (Franco 341:1976):
“Sta. María tonanchinthan año del 1764 Miguel Castillo fecit.” (translation: Santa María Tonanzintla in the year 1764 made by Miguel Castillo.)

Pre-Hispanic dancers performing on the great pyramid at the Cholula Fair
Pre-Hispanic dancers performing on the great pyramid at the Cholula Fair (Click on image to enlarge)


• Axocotzin Radio Capsules from Tlaxcalancingo Puebla
• Clavijero, Francisco Xavier. 1974 Reglas de la lengua mexicana con un vocabulario Mexico City: UNAM
• Franco, Felipe. 1976 Indonimia geográfica del Estado de Puebla. Puebla: Asociación Fraternal de Ex-alumnos Normalistas Poblanos
• Grijalbo 1997 Gran diccionario enciclopédico ilustrado. Barcelona: Grijalbo Mondadori
• Horcasitas, Fernando. 1973 “Cambio y evolución en la antroponimia náhuatl” Anales de Antropología vol. X: 265-283
• Molina, Fray Alonso de. 2008 Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana y mexicana y castellana. Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa
• Montemayor, Carlos (2009) (coordinador) Diccionario del náhuatl en el español de México. México, D.F.: Universidad Autónoma de México.

Photos by, courtesy of and thanks to Scott Hadley.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Sep 13th 2016

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Here's what others have said:

Mexicolore replies: Our guess would be ‘youth of illustrious birth’, but we can’t help feeling there could be a letter adrift in the name. tlacat in Siméon’s Nahuatl dictionary means something like ‘of illustrious descent’. The other part, could either be from telpo[chtli] (youth) or possibly from elpantli - chest or stomach. Telpan means ‘our chest’. So your name might also mean, figuratively, ‘Our chest of illustrious birth’.
Mexicolore replies: It’s clearly the same surname! As you can see above, the word means ‘smoking star’ - ie a comet. If you’re interested, it was the name of the lord of Quiahuiztlan, one of the four governors of the state of Tlaxcala at the time of the Spanish invasion. He converted to Christianity and was baptised with the name Don Bartolo (Rémi Siméon, Diccionario de la lengua nahuatl).
Mexicolore replies: Thank you so much, Cheryl, for providing all these intriguing details!
Mexicolore replies: We’re sure the first part comes from tecua[ni] which means ‘wild beast’. The second part could be one of three things: a) petla[tl] meaning woven mat (ie, petate today), b) petla[hua] meaning to polish or shine something, and c) petla[ni] meaning for something to scatter, or to glisten. The ‘best’ bet, we think, would be a reference to the revered ‘jaguar mat’ on which anyone important would sit or stand in ancient times.
Mexicolore replies: tecatl means resident of or person from; coyo(tl) means coyote. So we would assume this means Person from the Place of Coyotes.
Mexicolore replies: Thanks to all the above.