State Etymologies

In conjunction with learning about Brazil’s different regions and states, I am going to add something that is rarely talked about, state etymologies. What I find interesting is the division between states named upon Spanish or Portuguese “discovery” versus the states named in the native languages of the time (mainly Tupí and Guaraní).

  • Acre – from a misspelling of Aquiri, a local river (documented); not from acre (a unit for territorial measurement).
  • Alagoas – plural of alagoa, a flooded field or swamp.
  • Amapá – from Aruak amapá, “the land in the end” (documented in Sir Walter Raleigh’s account of Guyana as Land of Amapaia).
  • Amazonas – after the Amazon river, which by its turn was baptized such by Spanish explorers who heard rumors that Amazons (female breastless mounted warriors; from Greek a- mastos, with no breasts) guarded the legendary city of Eldorado in the middle of the forest.
  • Bahia – from bahia, the ancient Portuguese spelling of baía, that is, bay or harbor. The actual name of the colonial province was Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay), for it was discovered in November 1, All Saints Day.
  • Ceará – from Tupi sy ara (mother of the day) because it is a sunny land with sparse vegetation (therefore, few shadows).
  • Espírito Santo – literally, Portuguese for “Holy Spirit”. The Iberian colonists were used to dedicate their colonies to Catholic entities.
  • Goiás – from the name of a long-extinct but once famous native people.
  • Maranhão – from the Spanish spelling of Marañón, another name for the Amazon River; from 1621 to 1709, the north of Brazil was styled the State of Maranhão, with its capital in São Luís.
  • Mato Grosso – literally, Portuguese for “thick grass”, or else “dense woods”, “dense jungle”.
  • Mato Grosso do Sul – seceded from the former in 1975, as its Southern (and wealthiest) portion.
  • Minas Gerais – literally “General Mines” (meaning of “state-owned mines” in early modern Portuguese). The province was originally part of São Paulo, but from the early 18th century on, colonists found out gold, diamond, and gems on its territory. Therefore, in 1709 the Portuguese Crown strategically separated the mining territory and placed it under its direct control (Captaincy of São Paulo and the Mines), as an immense mining district of several products (then, “general mines”).
  • Pará – from Tupi-Guarani pará (river). Probably called such because of the estuary of the Amazon river.
  • Paraíba – from Tupi pará (river) + aíba (rough, bad), probably meaning “rough river”.
  • Paraná – from Guarani paraná, “wide river” (the words for “river”, “large river”, “lagoon”, “sea” and “lake” have different meanings in Tupi, thus leading to the confusion that Paraná meant sea).
  • Pernambuco – from Tupi paranã (sea) mbuka (hollow), referring to the reefs that lie off the coast (hence also the state capital name, Recife, Portuguese for reef).
  • Piauí – from the Tupi word piau (a type of river fish) and y (river), so Piau/Fish River.
  • Rio de Janeiro – literally, Portuguese for “River of January”. The harbor where the city was founded was discovered in January 1, 1502, and taken for the mouth of a river (such as the Tagus estuary which forms a bay in Lisbon). The state was named after the city, now its capital and formerly capital of the nation.
  • Rio Grande do Norte – literally, Portuguese for “Great River of the North”.
  • Rio Grande do Sul – literally, Portuguese for “Great River of the South”. The first important settlement there, the town of Rio Grande, was probably called such because of the Patos Lagoon, mistaken for a river for its long and narrow shape.
  • Rondônia – after Marshal Cândido Rondon, explorer of the region. The old name for the state was Guaporé, Tupi for “pathway to the lake”.
  • Roraima – from Yanomami roro imã, which means, according to some sources, “thundering mountain”. The old name for the state was Rio Branco, Portuguese for “white river”.
  • Santa Catarina – after St. Catherine, a saint praised by both Portuguese and Spanish, who held the land for nearly 200 years.
  • São Paulo – after the Jesuit monastery called São Paulo de Piratininga (St. Paul of Piratininga), built to Christianize native peoples. The state was named after the city, its capital.
  • Sergipe – after the name of an Indian chief, Serijipe. Another possible origin comes from Tupi siri jibe, a “brook with crabs”.
  • Tocantins – from Tupi tukan (toucan, a South American bird) tin (nose), or nose of toucan. This is due to the confluence of Araguaia and Tocantins rivers, shaped in a curve which resembles a bird’s beak; the region is also named “Bico do Papagaio” (Parrot Beak). However, the river had this name long before maps revealed the shape of the confluence.
  • Distrito Federal – literally, “Federal District”. Until 1934, the municipal territory of the national capital was called either Município Neutro (Neutral Municipality, from 1834 to 1889), Corte Imperial (Imperial Court, from 1822 to 1834) or Capital Federal (Federal Capital, from 1889 to 1934).

Itaipava & Petrópolis – Behind the Word

For information about the floods, see this post.


Itaipava is a word you may see when traveling to Brazil, mainly in Rio de Janeiro. In the Tupi-Guarani Indian language, it means “rock that cries,” such as in the picture above.

In Petrópolis (city of “Peter” after the emperor Dom Pedro II), North of Rio de Janeiro, you will find the Petrópolis brewery which makes a Pilsener called what else but Itaipava (my favorite), which is also the name of a district of the city. If left with pouco tempo (little time) to spare in Petrópolis, don’t waste it on getting wasted…instead go see the Summer home (or Palácio Imperial/Museu Imperial) of the second Royal Emperor to Brazil (as seen below). Following it is a picture of the district Itaipava.
Palácio Imperial