Toponymy of the largest cities in Spain is an exotic topic that encourages our students’ curiosity in our conversational lessons. Etymologists are a kind of detectives and historians who researche the origins of current words and study the evolution from their root term. The toponymy is focused on the proper names of places.

For example, the name of España, comes from the Latin Hispania. But, where does this come from? There are many theories. It might come from the Phoenician, ‘land of rabbits’; however, other specialists claim the Iberian origin, with the meaning of ‘Western city’; there’s also a Basque theory that says its meaning is ‘the land that divides the sea’.

Today, we’ll focus on the toponymy of the largest cities in Spain.

The toponymy of the largest cities in Spain: Madrid

Madrid is, by far, the largest and most populated city in Spain. There are two main hypotheses about its origin, all of them with an Arabic origin:

On the one hand, the original term was Maǧrīţ. Until recent times, linguists claimed that comes from maǧra (riverbed) and the Latin suffix –etum (abundance). On the other hand, nowadays, the most accepted theory says that Madrid comes from Maǧrīţ, indeed. However, it was the transcription from the Mozarabic language word Matrich (‘Matrix’ in English and Latin).


The origin of the name Barcelona

If we talk about the toponymy of the largest cities in Spain, we need to learn about the origin of the name Barcelona. The second most important city in Spain, has many suppositions about the origin of its name, most of them based on legends and myths.

Some people think that Hamilcar Barca, the Carthaginian (the father of the well-known Hannibal) founded the city and named it as his surname, Barkenon. For others, it was Hercules itself, who got shipwrecked near the Catalan coast. His ninth ship was not found and that was the name he gave to that land Barca Nona (the ninth ship).

The most linguistic theory claims that Barcelona comes from the Iberian language, spoken by the tribe of Laietani. The orignal term might be Barkeno, that evolved into Barcino, with the meaning of ‘big shipyard’.

Valencia, other toponymy of the largest cities in Spain

Valencia es la tierra de las flores, de la luz y del color, as it says a Spanish popular song. Its toponymy is very clear in this case. It was founded by the Roman Empire and comes from Latin, Valentia Edetanorum (strength or valour of Edetani). The Edetani were an Iberian people who lived in the east of the Iberian peninsula. The original name was shortened and that’s the term we currently have: Valencia.

Seville, has a special color… and name

Sevilla or Seville, in English, is well-known by many of Spanish clichés (flamenco, bullfighting and parties). However, this toponymy of the largest cities in Spain is one of the most enigmatic. An old theory affirms that it comes from the Phoenician spal (flat land). Nevertheless, it’s more likely that the origin is the term Hisbaal, a proper name. This can mean ‘live’, ‘a gift’ or ‘son of’ in Phoenician. So, Seville can mean ‘a gift of Baal’ (one of the gods).

Roman people latinize the word into Hispalis, and the Arabics into Ishbīliya, very close to our modern Sevilla.

Zaragoza, the fifth, but not the least beautiful

Zaragoza is very popular because of its cathedral, the river that crosses the city and its history. It was the capital of one of the most important kingdom in Europe, the Crown of Aragon. Its name comes from Latin Caesaraugusta, in honor of Caesar Augustus. The Latin term was modified by the Arabics into Saraqusta, until the current Zaragoza.

As you can see, the toponymy of the largest cities in Spain is a funny way to investigate the origins of words. If you want to learn more about that, reserve a lesson at Do you want to try first? Of course, reserve a trial lesson here and start speaking Spanish from the very first moment!