There is an expression "to go from Guatemala to Guatapeor" (from Guata-bad to Guata-worse).

Yet the word Guatemala means "the land of trees" according to this.

So since "bad" isn't part of the meaning of the word, is it not a Spanish-language placename? Amerindian? What is the etymology of the pieces-parts of the word?

2 Answers 2


I want to add a caveat to this, if I may. Although @mdewey's answer is widely accepted, the precise etymology is uncertain, although it almost surely comes from Nahuatl. There is little historical evidence of the "many trees" theory (the Wikipedia's article source is a blog on the "rainforest facts"). I don't think there is any historical evidence, to be honest.

An alternative theory, supported by ethnohistorical accounts, is that the name is derived from the Nahuatl word for "eagle" cuahuitl (as oposed to cuāuhtli, "tree"). This referred to the "eagle warriors", the elite military unit at the city of Iximche. Iximche was the capital of the Kaqchikel people and effectively served as the first Spanish capital of the country. Below you can see the city represented via its "eagle warrior". (This comes from the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan.) I believe this theory is generally more popular amongst archaeologists and has, all in all, more evidence to support it.

enter image description here

I can also add a thing or two about the word, being a Guatemalan myself. The first is that we consider it (unsurprisingly) a very rude expression. The second is that the same decomposition of the word Guate-something has been widely used. Guatebuena is common, and slightly cheesy. Guate-morfosis was a recent, Pepsi-financed, campaign.

  • (+1) If you know how to do it perhaps editing the Wikipedia article would be a good idea?
    – mdewey
    Commented May 11, 2017 at 15:54
  • 1
    That's a good idea. I did some editing before, shouldn't be too hard! Commented May 12, 2017 at 6:35
  • I would have guessed it came from one of the mayan languanges like quiche.
    – Paul
    Commented May 14, 2017 at 19:47
  • 1
    @Paul as mdewey mentioned, the K'iche' equivalent for "many trees" would be "k'iche'". The Kaqchikel equivalent to my proposal would be Iximche'. Most names in Guatemala (Mexico, and Central America in general) are Nahuatl because they were re-christened by the Mexican warriors that were travelling with the Spaniards. In most cases they are direct translations of the vernacular. Commented May 15, 2017 at 12:47

According to Wikipedia:

The name "Guatemala" comes from the Nahuatl word Cuauhtēmallān (nahwiki), or "place of many trees", a derivative of the K'iche' Mayan word for "many trees". This was the name the Tlaxcaltecan soldiers who accompanied Pedro de Alvarado during the Spanish Conquest gave to this territory.

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