False explanations are often the nicer ones. After weeks of voyaging over the open seas an anonymous seaman is supposed to have shouted «Monte video!» or «Monte vi eu!» when he finally sighted land from his crow’s nest: «I saw a mountain!» He obviously meant the hill looming over the harbour of the current-day capital of Uruguay which, with its height of 132 metres, stands out a little from the flat, slightly wavy landscape of the northern bank of the Rio de la Plata. «Montevideo» not only stayed hanging onto the hill but, in the 1720s, also jumped across the newly founded Spanish settlement at the foot of the mountain bearing the name San Felipe y Santiago de Montevideo.
The manner in which this mountain sighted by the seaman got its name is part of an ancient cultural practice that is still more or less stuck as a model form in this region: I see something and give it a name so that it can henceforth be differentiated from other things. If one were to follow this logic strictly then every mountain on the planet ought to be called Montevideo – because all of them would have been seen first and then named. Yet, the situation here is somewhat different: even if the mountain was discovered after weeks of hopelessness and that was its most important characteristic at that point in time, does it necessarily mean that there was actually something to be seen above the surface of the water. Whosoever goes sailing over the open seas knows that at some point he will be vexed by this soft little doubt – about whether it will not, perhaps, always proceed in this way: water over water over water, an ocean without end. In such a situation it would mean that the sight of a hill, be it only 132 metres tall, would signify liberation or, rather, the fulfilment of a promise, a hope – quite like that in the case of the Promised Land.
Pity is, the derivation of the name, Montevideo, belongs, at least according to the German Wikipedia (consulted on 5 March 2013), to the field of folk etymology. The name is actually derived from the Guaraní name, Yvyty («rock»), mentioned in Magellan’s notes as being the source of the word Montevidi («mountain rock») for hill or mountain – and is as such not just the triumph of fantasy. As observed, sometimes false explanations are actually the nicer ones.
First Publication: 23-5-2013