I was reading J.H. Elliott’s NYRB review essay (cached) on several new histories of the conquest of Mexico when I was struck by this minatory footnote:

Both authors have difficulties not only with “empire” but also with “Aztec,” which is a highly questionable term. The inhabitants of Tenochtitlan and surrounding regions that recognized their dominance were technically Mexica, but as far as is known the Mexica, along with other peoples of central Mexico, never identified themselves as “Aztecs.” Irrespective of their geographical location and political status, each ethnic or social group referred to itself when dealing with outsiders and others as “we people here.” To avoid inconvenience and make the nature of their topic clear to nonspecialists, [Frances] Berdan and [Camilla] Townsend tend to fall back, with obvious misgiving, on “Aztec.”

I thought I pretty much knew what Aztec meant, but as Augustine said about time, “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” So for the benefit of others in the same boat, here’s the thorough discussion at Wikipedia:

The Nahuatl words (aztecatl Nahuatl pronunciation: [asˈtekat͡ɬ], singular) and (aztecah Nahuatl pronunciation: [asˈtekaʔ], plural) mean “people from Aztlan”, a mythical place of origin for several ethnic groups in central Mexico. The term was not used as an endonym by Aztecs themselves, but it is found in the different migration accounts of the Mexica, where it describes the different tribes who left Aztlan together. In one account of the journey from Aztlan, Huitzilopochtli, the tutelary deity of the Mexica tribe, tells his followers on the journey that “now, no longer is your name Azteca, you are now Mexitin [Mexica]”.

In today’s usage, the term “Aztec” often refers exclusively to the Mexica people of Tenochtitlan (now the location of Mexico City), situated on an island in Lake Texcoco, who referred to themselves as Mēxihcah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [meːˈʃiʔkaʔ], a tribal designation that included the Tlatelolco), Tenochcah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [teˈnot͡ʃkaʔ], referring only to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, excluding Tlatelolco) or Cōlhuah (Nahuatl pronunciation: [ˈkoːlwaʔ], referring to their royal genealogy tying them to Culhuacan).

Sometimes the term also includes the inhabitants of Tenochtitlan’s two principal allied city-states, the Acolhuas of Texcoco and the Tepanecs of Tlacopan, who together with the Mexica formed the Aztec Triple Alliance that controlled what is often known as the “Aztec Empire”. The usage of the term “Aztec” in describing the empire centered in Tenochtitlan, has been criticized by Robert H. Barlow who preferred the term “Culhua-Mexica”, and by Pedro Carrasco who prefers the term “Tenochca empire”. Carrasco writes about the term “Aztec” that “it is of no use for understanding the ethnic complexity of ancient Mexico and for identifying the dominant element in the political entity we are studying”.

In other contexts, Aztec may refer to all the various city states and their peoples, who shared large parts of their ethnic history and cultural traits with the Mexica, Acolhua and Tepanecs, and who often also used the Nahuatl language as a lingua franca. An example is Jerome A. Offner’s Law and Politics in Aztec Texcoco. In this meaning, it is possible to talk about an “Aztec civilization” including all the particular cultural patterns common for most of the peoples inhabiting central Mexico in the late postclassic period. Such a usage may also extend the term “Aztec” to all the groups in Central Mexico that were incorporated culturally or politically into the sphere of dominance of the Aztec empire.

When used to describe ethnic groups, the term “Aztec” refers to several Nahuatl-speaking peoples of central Mexico in the postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology, especially the Mexica, the ethnic group that had a leading role in establishing the hegemonic empire based at Tenochtitlan. The term extends to further ethnic groups associated with the Aztec empire, such as the Acolhua, the Tepanec and others that were incorporated into the empire. Charles Gibson enumerates a number of groups in central Mexico that he includes in his study The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964). These include the Culhuaque, Cuitlahuaque, Mixquica, Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Acolhuaque, and Mexica.

In older usage the term was commonly used about modern Nahuatl-speaking ethnic groups, as Nahuatl was previously referred to as the “Aztec language”. In recent usage, these ethnic groups are referred to as the Nahua peoples. Linguistically, the term “Aztecan” is still used about the branch of the Uto-Aztecan languages (also sometimes called the Uto-Nahuan languages) that includes the Nahuatl language and its closest relatives Pochutec and Pipil.

To the Aztecs themselves the word “aztec” was not an endonym for any particular ethnic group. Rather, it was an umbrella term used to refer to several ethnic groups, not all of them Nahuatl-speaking, that claimed heritage from the mythic place of origin, Aztlan. Alexander von Humboldt originated the modern usage of “Aztec” in 1810, as a collective term applied to all the people linked by trade, custom, religion, and language to the Mexica state and the Triple Alliance. In 1843, with the publication of the work of William H. Prescott on the history of the conquest of Mexico, the term was adopted by most of the world, including 19th-century Mexican scholars who saw it as a way to distinguish present-day Mexicans from pre-conquest Mexicans. This usage has been the subject of debate in more recent years, but the term “Aztec” is still more common.

It seems like one of those terms that would be best avoided if only there were a universally accepted, or at least comprehensible, substitute.


  1. Estadio Azteca – the stadium of people whose forebears lived in Aztlan.

    I wondered whether von Humboldt (in French) and Prescott’s use (in English) of Aztec influenced Mexican uptake of Azteca, or whether Azteca was being used somewhat fluidly in Mexico in late colonial days?

    The paragraph mentioning these sources is footnoted to an article by Leon-Portilla, which is available here:

    He does support the idea that up to 1810, Mexica was predominant, that von Humboldt and Prescott were central to the development, and their usage slowly changed that of others, including people in Mexico.

    I also wonder whether Mexican independence made Mexica problematic as a term for a small subset of the population’s ancestors, and propelled Aztec(a) into wider acceptance. (In fact, as I continue reading Leon-Portilla past the section on Humboldt and Prescott, he makes this point.)

    Obviously the whole cluster of terms and meanings is fluid and interrelated, hence Estadio Azteca as the home stadium for the nation. Hegemony through metonymy. Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride.

  2. This hand-wringing seems to presuppose a norm “never use an exonym if you can find the right endonym.” I see no basis for that. Also the notion that “X Empire” (or “X-ish Empire”) should always involve the same relationship between X and the Empire seems contrary to the variousness of usage in English over time. The Byzantine Empire is maybe a high-profile example of an entirely anachronistic endonym?

    To Ryan’s point, I guess I don’t know to what extent in colonial days “Mexico” was already a common way to refer to “that portion of New Spain located north of the Captaincy-General of Guatemala,” or whether independence itself made “New Spain” obsolete and required a new name for that region, with the central-dominant Mexico being treated as a synecdoche for the whole? Another possibility is that in colonial times most/all of the various dioceses throughout modern-day Mexico were administratively subordinate to the Archbishop of Mexico in the capital city, which would lead to a much larger ecclesiastical province “of Mexico” than the boundaries of the Archdiocese proper.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    At least “Aztec” as an exonym is not pejorative, just weird.

    I propose that we take to calling the Roman Empire the “Trojan Empire”, which seems to be a fair parallel.

  4. This hand-wringing seems to presuppose a norm “never use an exonym if you can find the right endonym.”

    That seems an exceedingly uncharitable way of reading it. I’d say rather “Try to use names that mean something reasonably clear.”

  5. On a more prosaic note, the Wikipedia article mistakenly gives the pronunciation of ‘Aztecatl’ with a short e. The -ecatl suffix for ethnonyms has a long e. (And the final a of the -tlan locative suffix in ‘Aztlan’ is also long.)

  6. Speaking of the suffix -ēcatl and its plural form -ēcah, it seems to have been borrowed into Mesoamerican Spanish as -eco/-eca even for demonyms or adjectives for non-Nahuatl names, such as yucateco from Yucatán, copaneco from Copán, and even santaneco from Santa Ana in El Salvador. Here, the more Castilian-like distinction is made between masculine -eco and feminine -eca. There is also the exonym zapoteco of disputed origin.

    By contrast, the demonyms or adjectives clearly modelled on Nahuatl names often use -eca for both masculine and feminine forms, such as azteca, olmeca, and tlaxcalteca corresponding to Nahuatl aztēcah, ōlmēcah, and tlaxcaltēcah respectively. But then you also have mixteco, tolteco, and zacateco corresponding to Nahuatal mixtēcah, tōltēcah, and zacatēcah respectively, so this is far from universal.

    Catalan, Galician, and Portuguese follow Spanish in using azteca/asteca and olmeca as both masculine and feminine, but outside of languages all these seem to be treated as if they had typical Romance suffixes. So Italian uses azteco and olmeco for Spanish azteca and olmeca, and English turns everything into -ec as in Aztec, Olmec, etc.

  7. “ But then you also have mixteco, tolteco, and zacateco corresponding to Nahuatal mixtēcah, tōltēcah, and zacatēcah respectively, so this is far from universal.”

    Tolteca is still used to refer to the Toltecs. The modern Mixtec people are usually called Mixtecos in my experience but I thought I remembered “mixtecas” used when I was a child and indeed a Google search brought up a Facebook page named “Los Mixtecas” and a page entitled “ Historia de los Zapotecas y Mixtecas” from an online university ( also news of a motorcycle club (gang?) from the Midwest named Los Mixtecas.) Zacatecas is still the name of a city and a state. Their people are called “Zacatecanos” and they have a large diaspora in the U.S.

    I think most modern Mexicans don’t have a problem with the name Azteca for its different uses and wouldn’t see a need to change. I think it’s become too engrained in the national/ethnic identity by now. For Mexicans, the meaning is clear enough.

  8. Thanks for the explanations about the usage of these names, Pancho. As a non-Spanish speaker, I was going on dictionaries and other resources I could find online but it’s hard to figure out what the actual usage is and I haven’t been able to find an explanation of when -eco and -eca are used.

  9. I also had not realized that Aztec was not a self-designation.
    No doubt Humbolt’s usage was influential, but not the earliest.

    OED online cites
    1787 C. Cullen tr. F. S. Clavigero Hist. Mexico I. ii. 112 The Aztecas or Mexicans, who were the last people who settled in Anahuac.

    And Robert Southey’s Madoc of 1807 uses “Aztecas, an American tribe” who “forsook Aztlan” and “became a mighty people” multiple times (hathitrust affirms) in a story of a man who arrived from Wales long ago.

    A reverse suprise about a self-designation obtains with hoodlums:

    1866 _San Francisco Evening Bulletin_ 14 Dec., page 5, column 4 (America’s Historical Newspapers) We yesterday mentioned the arrest of five boys who have been committing petty thefts for some days past. … It is doubtful if any thieves ever did a more driving business than these young fellows, for all of their plunder has been stolen since last Saturday night. They call themselves the “Hoodlum Band,” and unless their thieving propensities are nipped in the bud, the reputation of Orliniski will fade before that of a “Hoodlum.” … Among other exploits of the “Hoodlums” was the stealing of a lot of keys from the pockets of a clerk in an office on Montgomery street, to enter the office and unlock and rob the safe of $2 in silver.

  10. That’s great!

  11. stealing of a lot of keys

    Is this ‘lot’ in an older and more specific sense?

  12. Yes, “set of keys”, and The Crying of Lot 49.

  13. Hugh Thomas says of Aztec (The Conquest of Mexico, p. xix): “It was made popular by the Jesuit scholar, Francisco Javier Clavijero, in the eighteenth century, and then by Prescott.” He cites an article by R. H. Barlow from 1945.

  14. Byzantine Empire

    the Byzantium and Friends podcast has an episode making a very convincing argument for retiring “byzantium” as a rubric (less because it’s useless and misleading, which i think practically everyone acknowledges it is, than because of the specific work it does), which i found both interesting and convincing.

    and also an episode (that i wanted much more from, in honesty) looking at laments for the falls of constantinope and tenochitlan alongside each other.

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