In the past month, I’ve seen a 17-year-old environmental activist pop up everywhere. He’s been on Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show, addressed the U.N., and received the United States Community Service Award from President Obama in 2013. He’s undoubtedly a very gifted and accomplished young man, and he wears a highly unusual name: Xiuhtezcatl Martinez.
Martinez is an American of Aztec descent. His unusual first name, pronounced shu-TEZ-caht, comes from the Uto-Aztecan language Nahuatl. Nahuatl is one of the more common indigenous Mesoamerican languages with about 1.5 million speakers, most of whom live in Mexico. The -tl ending seems to be pretty common in Nahuatl; many Mexican place names that come from the language have that ending. I think the pronunciation of the -tl changes: one of my anthropology professors, a specialist in Mesoamerica, pronounced the language and many of the words with the “tl” (like the end of the word “skittle”) but Xiuhtezcatl doesn’t share that sound. Nahuatl is the root of a surprisingly large number of English words: avocado, chocolate, coyote, guacamole, tomato, chili, chipotle, atlatl (a throwing weapon with variants used by the Aztecs and other groups throughout the world), and axolotl. The axolotl, if you aren’t familiar, is an adorable newt.
According to Martinez, Xiuhtezcatl means “turquoise warrior,” fitting for an activist. His siblings Tonantzin and Itzcuauhtli also have Nahuatl names. I doubt his name will ever become popular- it seems too unusual and using it may be appropriative for non-Aztecs- but I could see it becoming a one-person name a la Madonna or Oprah. We’ll have to see as Martinez’ star continues to rise!
And for fun, a few other Nahuatl names:
Moctezuma (masculine- maybe related to Montezuma?)