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The Collation

A Cacique By Any Other Name

… Or, Etymologies in Translation, from the Caribbean to London

The word “cacique”—a leader or lord among the people of the Caribbean islands—first appeared in an English book in 1555.1 Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr of Angleria’s The Decades of the Newe World of West India introduced the island of Haiti to English-language readers. Eden’s book contained not only Martyr’s Latin account but also excerpts from early Spanish chronicles of the Americas by Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo, Francisco López de Gómara, and Ramón Pané.2 In his prefatory epistle, Eden expressed admiration for the Spanish; he explicitly justified the violence of the conquest on the basis of the alleged benefits that the “vanquishers” introduced to the inhabitants of the Americas. “Theyr bondage is suche as is much rather to be desired,” Eden wrote, “then theyr former libertie which was to the cruell Canibales rather a horrible licenciousnesse then a libertie.”3

At the beginning of the work, right after the table of contents, Eden felt it necessary to include a list entitled “The interpretation of certeyne woordes.” In it, he presents several lexical items, followed by short glosses, to aid the reader in deciphering and remembering these previously unknown names. The first part of the table includes technical terms like “caravel or carvel, a kynde of shyppes,” and “equinnoncial, the line that divideth the heaven and the earthe in the myddeth between the two poles, in the which when the sonne commeth, the days and nyghtes are of equal length.” These explanations served to aid readers who might be unfamiliar with the growing vocabulary of exploration and cosmographical description.

Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr of Angleria’s The Decades of the Newe World of West India (EEBO, STC 647)

Eden’s table also glosses words in “the Indian language.” While The Decades included chapters on multilingual regions beyond the Caribbean, like Mexico and the Río de la Plata,­­­ the table reduces the many languages of the Americas to a single tongue. It also mainly references words from the Caribbean islands. Among them, Eden highlighted as widespread terms, “canoa, a boat or barke,” the “areitos, songes or balades,” “Zemes an Idole,” and the designation “Caciqui,” which he described as “kynges or governours.”4 These words were frequent enough throughout the book to warrant special mention.

The names in Eden’s table had passed through numerous chains of translation, and invariably, of interpretation and misinterpretation. The links in the chain extended from the indigenous informants who conveyed the meanings of words to their Spanish interlocutors, to the Spanish writers who claimed to understand them and phonetically transcribed them into their own languages, to the chroniclers who recorded them and provided their explanations in printed works, and to their eventual rendering in an English book with English glosses.

Eden’s table also reflected practices that had become common in Spanish sixteenth-century writings on the geography, nature, and people of the Americas. Significant among them was the effort to collect indigenous words. For some, words were akin to fragments of the New World, evidence of their voyages or of their first-hand knowledge of the so-called Indies. For others, words served as meaningful and authoritative sources of information about people and places. By approaching words as archives, Spanish chroniclers and their translators implemented an approach to language study that had since antiquity served European scholars for a variety of purposes.

Names could reveal great amounts of information about the histories of cities, flora and fauna, land formations, deities, rituals, and even social roles. They contained the knowledge of their name-makers. Isidore of Seville argued that etymologies, or the study of names, could reflect a word’s rationale and its origin. Words could also define by opposition. Some etymologies could be derived from other words, from sounds, from the names of places, or from foreign words. Regardless of their origin, “one’s insight into anything is clearer when its etymology is known.”5 Eden, for instance, included in his compilation Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo’s passage on the fish of the Caribbean. In a chapter entitled “of fysshes and of the manner of fysshynge” Eden reproduced Oviedo’s list of fish names in indigenous languages, thus reproducing local nomenclature. Among the “dyuers and sundry kyndes of fysshes muche differynge in shape and forme,” Eden included Oviedo’s list of “Manates, and Murene, and manye other fysshes which haue no names in oure language. And these of such diuersitie and quantitie as can not bee expressed without large wrytynge and longe tyme.”6

Richard Eden’s translation of Peter Martyr of Angleria’s The Decades of the Newe World of West India (EEBO, STC 647)

In the sixteenth century etymologies acquired a new vigor. The rediscovery of Plato’s Cratylus, the revival of Neoplatonism, and a renewed interest in Biblical studies and in Hebrew, coupled with increased attention to vernaculars and the history of classical languages, transformed etymological studies. The etymological method, it was thought, could aid all disciplines and help to determine the most remote origins of people. Etymologies abound in the pages of the chroniclers of the Indies just as they do in histories trying to unveil the identity of the Iberian Peninsula’s most ancient inhabitants. They were a serious pursuit.

In their efforts to understand their broadening world, sometimes authors tried to connect the linguistic histories of the Old and New Worlds by debating theories about the origins, diversity, and transformation of languages across space and time. Spanish authors often used etymologies as evidence in their attempts to answer pressing and politically fraught questions about the status of religious converts throughout the Spanish empire, the origins of people, or even the relationship between cultural traditions and religious affiliation in what was becoming an increasingly religiously repressive society.

For the Franciscan Diego de Guadix, Arabic was the most primitive of the languages spoken in Spain. Guadix asserted that since Arabic resembled Hebrew­—which most scholars believed to be the first language of mankind—more closely than it did Greek, Latin, and Basque, it must have preceded the emergence of these other languages. In a massive lexicographical work entitled Compilation of some of the Arabic names that the Arabs gave to some cities and many other things (1593), Guadix argued that given this linguistic hierarchy, the presence of Arabic in Spain, Italy, France, and the rest of Europe predated the emergence of Islam and consequently the arrival of Muslim conquerors to the Iberian Peninsula in the eighth century. For Guadix, Arabic preceded any other language in the world “because it is the Hebrew language, though corrupted, and the Hebrew language was the one spoken by Adam, Noah,” and Abraham. More than a thousand years before the birth of Muḥammad and the rise of Islam, the world was already replete with “Arabic verbs and nouns.”

An important set of evidence that demonstrated the antiquity of Arabic, and its independence from Islam, was the fact that Arabic toponyms persisted in places where Muslims had never been. When the Spanish conquerors arrived in the West Indies, they found many words that, as Guadix could easily show, possessed Arabic ancestry. On the basis of phonetic similarity, Guadix contended that the word cacique, “lord of the town,” emanated from the Arabic caciq, which meant “religious [man].”7 The term was appropriate since he learned from reading the chronicles of those lands that “the principal lord of the town, while ruling over the republic, also had to teach religion and good customs.” Guadix’s linguistic genealogy aimed to defend Arabic and to show that this was an ancient language that could be spoken by faithful Catholics. As such, he thought, Arabic’s progressive prohibition in Spain since the middle of the sixteenth century departed from erroneous premises.

The lexicographer Sebastian de Covarrubias used the etymology of cacique to a different end. In his Treasury of the Castilian or Spanish language (1611), Covarrubias claimed that cacique meant “as much in the Mexican language as lord of vassals, and amongst those barbarians the lord that has the most strength to subject the others.” Covarrubias believed that while the current form of the word was attested in the Mexican language, it had a much more ancient history that could be traced by reducing the name to its constitutive parts. Covarrubias explained that after the flood, “those who populated the world” divided themselves “in the confusion of the tower of Babel, or Bablyon.” Despite adopting different languages, Covarrubias believed, “each nation that set themselves apart took with them some trace of the original language, in which they had all spoken.” The original language “remained with Heber, his family, from where the Hebrews proceeded.” It was for this reason that Covarrubias believed, on the basis of phonetic similarity, like Guadix, that cacique originated, not from Arabic but from the Hebrew verb meaning to fortify.8 In this way cacique proved how all languages, even those in the Americas, descended from Hebrew. It explained the common origins of humanity and upheld the history of linguistic descent put forth in the Bible.

Covarrubias’ description of cacique as a word meaningful in the “Mexican language” betrays another feature of the linguistic interpretation of the Americas already present in Eden’s table: Spanish writers used Caribbean words to categorize and identify social and natural phenomena throughout the New World, despite learning particular terms more appropriate to different societies in their own languages. Spanish scholars were aware of this process of linguistic projection. The chronicler Agustín de Zárate claimed in 1555 that in all of the provinces of Peru lords were called curacas. Yet the Spaniards referred to them by the Caribbean word cacique. The reason was that “the Spaniards that set out to conquer Peru went there accustomed, in all words and general and common things, to the names with which they called [things] of the islands of Santo Domingo, San Juan and Cuba and the mainland where they had lived.” Since the Spaniards did not know what things were called in Peru, they named them not with Castilian equivalents, but with the words of the islands.9

Title page of Agustín de Zárate’s The discouerie and conquest of the prouinces of Peru, and the nauigation in the South Sea, along that coast: And also of the ritche mines of Potosi, translated by Thomas Nicholas and published in London in 1581. (STC 26123)

Zárate’s chronicle of Peru appeared in English in 1581. Unlike Eden, Zárate’s translator, Thomas Nicholas, used his preface to highlight the deeds of English sailors and men like Francis Drake, “a valyant and noble minded Captaine,” who “attained to the knowledge of East, and West course, which none at any time had ever atchieved,” and thus promote English voyages of exploration. Nicholas entitled the book The Strange and Delectable History of the discoverie and Conquest of the Provinces of Peru in the South Sea.10 While Nicholas translated only a fragment of Zárate’s work, he included the chapter in which the Spanish chronicler explained the linguistic transformations taking place in Peru under Spanish rule. Nicholas’ translation noted that because of their interaction with the Spanish, the “the Indians themselues at this day vse to name those things according to the Spanyards termes of speech, and therfore they leaue from callinge their noble men Curaca, and call them Cascikes, and the corne or graine which they were wont to call Sara, they called Maiz, and the drinke which they called Asua, they now call Cieha.”  11 The grafting of indigenous Caribbean words onto other regions created a common language shared by the Spanish and the multilingual societies that they encountered.

Detail from Thomas Nicholas’ 1581 translation of Agustín de Zárate’s chronicle on the discovery of Peru showing the “sheepe of Peru” or llamas.

The first English dictionaries to incorporate the word “cacique” were devoted to technical terms, vocabulary from foreign languages, or “hard words.” They reproduced definitions of cacique that claimed general applicability to all societies of the Americas. Edward Phillips’ 1658 The New World of English words, or, A general dictionary containing the interpretations of such hard words as are derived from other languages defined the term as “a certain King among the Indians.”12

Frontispiece of Edward Phillips’s 1658 The new world of English words: or, a general dictionary: containing the interpretations of such hard words as are derived from other languages… (P2068 copy 2)

Likewise, Elisha Coles’ An English Dictionary of 1677 explained the designation using equally broad terms. In this work a cacique was even more succinctly “an Indian king.”13 These later lexicographers opted for brief explanations that set aside the pre-Hispanic past. The compilers of the eighteenth-century Castilian Dictionary of Authorities (1726-1729) dismissed older arguments about the possible history of the term and its links to Arabic or Hebrew. They recognized, like Zárate, that the term was a misnomer that had acquired its present meaning through usage. They also conveyed how the term’s meaning had been transformed by the dynamics of Spanish colonial administration. Cacique was a “lord of vassals, or the superior of a province or pueblo de los indios, and even if in parts of the Indies they have other names, in accordance with their languages, the Spanish call them all Cacíques, which it seems they took from the Windward Islands, which were the first that they conquered.” The entry concludes by repeating Covarrubias’ misattribution that “it is a Mexican word, which means Lord.”14 The terms that they chose to describe cacique encapsulated a long history of lexical borrowing, translation, and mistranslations. Spanish sources shaped the meanings that new world words acquired as they became part of English dictionaries, carrying with them the presuppositions, prejudices, and linguistic principles that their authors used to understand the many languages of the Americas


  1. “Cacique” in Lexicons of Early Modern English, ed. by Ian Lancashire (Toronto: University of Toronto Library and University of Toronto Press, 2018).
  2. Esther Hernández explains that “cacique” is a Taíno word first documented in Hispaniola in Columbus’ diary (1492). The Spanish spread its usage throughout the Americas. The Glosario etimólogico taíno-español histórico y etnográfico (1941) derives the word from the Arawak verb kassikóan, which means “to inhabit or have a home.” See: Esther Hernández, Vocabulario en lengua castellana y mexicana de Fray Alonso de Molina: Estudio de los indigenismos léxicos y registros de la voces españolas internas (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Invesitgaciones Científicas, 1996), 74-76.
  3. Peter Martyr of Angleria, The decades of the newe worlde or west India conteynyng the nauigations and conquestes of the Spanyardes, with the particular description of the moste ryche and large landes and ilandes lately founde in the west ocean perteynyng to the inheritaunce of the kinges of Spayne. … Wrytten in the Latine tounge by Peter Martyr of Angleria, and translated into Englysshe by Rycharde Eden, trans. by Richard Eden (London: William Powell, 1555), “Rycharde Eden to the Reader.”
  4. Martyr of Angleria, The decades of the newe worlde, “The interpretation of certeyne woordes.”
  5. Isidore of Seville, The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, trans. with an introduction and notes by Stephen A. Barney, W.J. Lewis, J.A. Beach, and Oliver Berghof (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), I.xxix, pp. 54-55.
  6. Martyr of Angleria, The decades of the newe worlde, 201.
  7. Diego de Guadix, Recopilación de algunos nombres arábigos que los árabes pusieron a algunas ciudades y a otras muchas cosas [1593], ed. by Elena Bajo Pérez and Felipe Maíllo Salgado (Gijón: Trea, 2005), 461.
  8. Sebastian de Covarrubias, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española compuesto por el licenciado don Sebastian de Covarrubias Orozco, capellan de su magestad mastrescuela y canonigo de la santa iglesia de Cuenca, y consultor del Santo Oficio de la Inquicision (Madrid: Luis Sanchez, 1611), 168r.
  9. Agustín de Zaráte, Historia del descubrimiento y conquista del peru, con las cosas naturales que señaladamente allí se hallan y los successos que ha avido. La cual escrivia Agustin de Çarate, exerciendo el cargo de Contador de cuentas por su Magestad en aquella provinvia, y en Tierra firme (Antwerp: Martin Nucio, 1555), 22r.-v.
  10. Agustín de Zárate, The discouerie and conquest of the prouinces of Peru, and the nauigation in the South Sea, along that coast: And also of the ritche mines of Potosi, trans. by Thomas Nicholas ( Imprinted at London: By [John Charlewood, William How, and John Kingston for] Richard Ihones, 1581), “ To the Right Honourable, Maister Thomas Wilson, Doctor of the Ciuill Lawe, and one of the principall Secretaries, to the Queenes most excellent Maiestie.”
  11. Zárate, The discouerie and conquest of the prouinces of Peru, 28r.
  12. “Cacique” in Edward Phillips, The new world of English words: or, a general dictionary: containing the interpretations of such hard words as are derived from other languages; whether Hebrew, Arabick, Syriack, Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, British, Dutch, Saxon, &c. their etymologies and perfect definitions: together with all those terms that relate to the arts and sciences (London : Printed by E. Tyler, for Nath. Brooke at the sign of the Angel in Cornhill, 1658).
  13. “Cacique” in Elisha Coles, An English dictionary: explaining the difficult terms that are used in divinity, husbandry, physick, phylosophy, law, navigation, mathematicks, and other arts and sciences : containing many thousands of hard words, and proper names of places, more than are in any other English dictionary or expositor : together with the etymological derivation of them from their proper fountains, whether Hebrew, Greek, Latin, French, or any other language: in a method more comprehensive than any that is extant (London : Printed for Peter Parker, 1677).
  14. “Cacique” in Real Academia Española, Diccionario de Autoridades (Madrid, 1729), Tomo II. Retrieved from

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