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From ‘throat of fire’ to ‘many bats’: the naming of volcanoes 29 July 2008

Posted by admin in volcano culture, volcanoes.
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Volcanoes impress people. They are powerful, beautiful, dramatic, sometimes dangerous; they inspire awe, fear, respect, and admiration.

The impact volcanoes have on those around them is often reflected in the names they are given. Variations on fire and smoke are naturally popular (Merapi, Popocatépetl, Llaima) but some are more poetic (‘woman in white’ – Iztaccíhuatl), intriguing (‘the gentleman’ – El Misti), or just plain baffling (‘many bats’ – Nyamuragira). Many volcanoes are named after saints and religious figures (Santa María, San Cristóbal), others after people such as diplomats (St Helens) and naval officers (Rainier*), while others have descriptive names, either physical (‘sharp peak’ – Ostry) or behavioural (Kick’em Jenny).

Here’s a selection of volcano name derivations, drawn from the Global Volcanism Program and elsewhere. This is a potentially vast subject, and also one peculiarly prone to error and confusion, so additions and corrections are welcome. The language from which the name comes is given in brackets after the name.

Agung, Indonesia – ‘paramount’ (Indonesian)
Bezymianny, Kamchatka – ‘nameless’ (Russian)
El Misti, Peru – ‘the gentleman’ (Quechua)
Guntur, Indonesia – ‘thunder’ (Indonesian)
Haleakala, Hawaii – ‘house of the sun’ (Hawaiian)
Huaynaputina, Peru – ‘new volcano’ (Quechua)
Iztaccíhuatl, Mexico – ‘the woman in white’ (Nahuatl)
Kilimanjaro, Tanzania – ‘shining mountain’ (Swahili)
Llaima, Chile – ‘veins of fire’ (Mapuche)
Mauna Kea, Hawaii – ‘white mountain’ (Hawaiian)
Mauna Loa, Hawaii – ‘long mountain’ (Hawaiian)
Merapi, Indonesia – ‘fire mountain’ (Indonesian)
Nyamuragira, DR Congo – ‘many bats’ (Lingala?)
Ol Doinyo Lengai, Tanzania – ‘mountain of god’ (Maasai)
Ostry, Kamchatka – ‘sharp peak’ (Russian)
Popocatépetl, Mexico – ‘smoking mountain’ (Nahuatl)
Sabancaya, Peru – ‘tongue of fire’ (Quechua)
Sisquk (aka Shishaldin), Alaska – ‘mountain which points the way when I am lost’ (Aleut)
Trezubetz, Kuril Islands – ‘trident’ (Russian)
Tungurahua, Ecuador – ‘throat of fire’ (Quechua)
Wau-en-Namus, Libya – ‘oasis of mosquitoes’ (Arabic)
Wudalianchi, China – ‘five connected pools’ (Chinese)
Yake-dake, Japan – ‘burning mountain’ (Japanese)

* There was some resentment that Mount Rainier should be lumbered with the name of a British naval officer when the beautiful native name ‘Tacoma’ was already available. Unsurprisingly, the city of Tacoma was particularly keen that the name should be changed. Various attempts were made between the 1880s and the 1930s to consign the name ‘Rainier’ to history but the U.S. Board of Geographical Names wasn’t having it. For the history of the Rainier-Tacoma name controversy, see this article in Tacoma’s News Tribune: ‘How Mount Tacoma became Mount Rainier’, 25 October 2007.

The Volcanism Blog


1. Helen - 29 July 2008

I have always wondered about the Caribbean volcanoes named Pelee or Pele and if there is a relationship with Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. Coincidence or did Pacific explorers name Caribbean volcanoes, or did the word and myth travel with ancient migrating south Pacific Islander?

2. volcanism - 29 July 2008

I don’t think there’s a direct link with the Hawaiian Pele. Mt Pelée in Martinique got its name from the French word for ‘bare’ or ‘bald’ (reflecting its upper slopes being bare of vegetation). The same derivation lies behind such names as Cerro Pelado (Spanish) and Monte Pelato (Italian).

3. Helen - 29 July 2008

Hmmm! so just a coincidence.

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