Posted by: janecronin | April 30, 2017

Place names

It´s always interesting, or at least it is to me, to find out about the origin of place names.  Sometimes these are lost in the mists of time, but many of the names of towns and cities in Spain can be traced back to specific periods in history.

The first period is broadly known as Iberian or pre-Roman, when there were in fact a number of different tribes populating the peninsula.  The word “ondar” meaning “sand” comes from this period, from which we have “Ondara” as well as the suffix “-astro” from which comes “Bigastro”.

After the Roman invasion many of these names became “Latinised” whilst new settlements received Latin names directly.  The city name “Merida” comes from “Augusta Emerita” whilst Zaragoza comes from “Caesar Augusta”.   In many cases, these Latin names became distorted by the subsequent Visigoth and especially Moorish invasions.

At the end of the period of Roman domination the Germanic Visigoth tribes entered Spain, and although they controlled the territory for over two hundred years, their heritage is far less influential today than that of the Moorish invaders.

The Moors controlled much of the Iberian Peninsula for a total of 800 years.  For the first 300 years they dominated all but a small strip of land on the north Atlantic coast and their influence was overwhelming in every sphere of life, including the language.  In terms of place names, there is a vast number beginning with the two letters “Al” which is the Arabic word for “the”.  Alicante, Almoradí, Algerciras, Albacete, Alcalá are just a few examples.   The Alhambra palace means “the red one” whilst the word “Alcázar” means castle, so “Los Alcázares” therefore means “the castles”, and probably refers to military fortresses that were built along the Levante coast during the wars of the Reconquest.

“Beni” is another Moorish prefix meaning “son of”, so Benidorm was originally “son of Darhim” and “Benijófar “sons of Yafar”.  Madrid itself is a name of Moorish origin, originally called “Magherit” which refers to a source of underground waters, although the city itself was probably originally a Visigoth agrarian settlement.

Finally, there are many place names that have a modern Castilian origin.  These are often places named after saints, such as Santiago, Santander, San Fulgencio, Santa María and Santa Eulalia to name but a few.  There are also many composite Christianized place names such as Pilar de la Horadada or San Pedro del Pinatar where the name of the saint worshipped in the locality is added to a former place name.


  1. Fascinating!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: