By Phil Plait | April 9, 2011 7:10 am

I took a family vacation recently (as those who follow me on Twitter already know; see also here, and here). I haven’t talked about it at all, but we were visiting friends in Mexico. We took a day to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza — the day after the Equinox, thankfully; it’s massively crowded there due to a light show on the Temple of Kukulkan, the great ziggurat there — and it was spectacular. I promise I will write about that at some point, for what I hope are obvious reasons.

But in the meantime, since it’s Caturday, and I’ve chosen to expand that to any animal, here is a little fella we saw while we were there:

[Click to iguananate.]

We actually saw dozens of iguanas, and my brother-in-law Chris took lots of excellent pictures of them (like this one, too).

We learned the Mayan word for iguana is xtoloc, pronounced SHTO-lok. This is my new favorite word in the whole world (ironically, taking the spot previously held by "Quetzlcoatl"). Whenever we see a lizard on TV, I turn to The Little Astronomer and say, knowingly, "Xtoloc", and it always gets a smile from her.

If I ever write a Star Trek story, I will name a Vulcan character Xtoloc.

I actually learned many Mayan words while down there, and it’s just about the coolest spoken language I’ve ever heard. Plus, they start lots of words with X, which is really just inherently cool as well.

Related posts:

Caturday napping
Eat. Pray. Loathe.
I toad you it’s Caturday

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Humor, Pretty pictures

Comments (37)

  1. Trebuchet

    Here I thought your favorite word was “Holy Haleakala!” OK, I guess that’s two words.

  2. Scott Davis

    i like lizards!

  3. Luiz Borges

    @Scott Davis: FTFY
    i like lizards turtles!

  4. Kimpatsu

    Phil, in Star Trek, Vulcan male names mostly end in “K”, so Shtolok or Xtolok are OK, but “Xtoloc” is not.
    FYI, most female name end in “a” or “ra” or “-l”.

  5. Kkozoriz

    Blackmail is such an ugly word. I prefer “extortion”. The “X” makes it sound cool.
    — Bender Bending Rodriguez

  6. Unaspammer

    If only Mayan words were legal to play in Scrabble.

  7. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
  8. jess tauber

    I studied Mayan languages (there are a good number) in grad school, a bit, for fun, and on and off since. Words are relatively easy, the grammars are very tough. Not the hardest in the world, but just try to wrap your head around them. No wonder they started cutting each others hearts out.

    They have systems of up to thousands of ‘affect’ verbs, each of which describe properties/positions/motions of things. So there may be several dozen forms for ex. just for different sorts of potbellied animals, depending on other particulars, such as size, orientation, shape, type of motion (gait) etc. There are also often shape/number classifiers, which detail different clumps of this and that, that can number in the hundreds.

    English is just SO boring when it comes to this kind of thing.

  9. josie

    I’ve been a fan of Mayan “x’s” for a long time!

    One of my favorite places in Mexico was Playa Xcacel :)

  10. jess

    I always enjoyed saying Teotihuacan and Popocatepetl…although I’ve probably spelt them wrong.

    Gotta love the Igs at Chichen Itza…geet lost this is ma temple!

  11. Santiago

    I count myself really lucky that I got to climb the Castillo before they closed it off, it truly is a wonderful place!

    Also, I guess you do know this (but it wasn’t clear in the post) but the light show that makes it so tremendously busy during the equinox is the “descent of Kukulcan” that occurs at sundown on the equinoxes, which is caused by the (impressive) design and orientation of the entire pyramid (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kukulkan)

  12. John Paradox

    The photo reminds me of the Mexico episode of “An Idiot Abroad”*, where Karl feeds a Xtoloc and muses about it.

    *Ran on The Science Channel… though it would have been more appropriate on the Travel Channel… but SciChan is also running Firefly. (And SyFy has wresting… whatever happened to ‘narrowcasting’ channels?)


  13. Peter

    So you have been at he very edge of the crater that resulted from the impact that killed the dino’s as well.

    I just happened to show the pictures from my visit to the Maya sites several years ago to my girlfriend the other day. Boy, did I feel privileged to have been able to watch with my own eyes, climb and touch the ruins that are such an impressive landmark in human history.. and to have been able to actually stand on the spot where an event occurred 65 million years ago that made it all possible.

  14. Kirsty

    Quetzalcoatl is an Aztec word. The mayan name for the feathered serpent is Kukulcan, the god after whom the famous pyramid at Chichen Itza is named.

  15. Chip

    I looked up the Mayan words for Star “Ek” and Sun “K’íin” – however Moon was “Luunaa” which is modern Yucatan Mayan and probably derived from Spanish.

  16. Ad Hominid

    I never learned me none of this heathen lingo! If English was good enough for Jesus and the apostles, it was good enough for me!

    Btw, it is probably an urban legend that Texas governor Miriam “Ma” Ferguson said this. If she did say it, she was joking. Ferguson was an educated person and showed relatively little affinity for fundamentalist positions during her term as governor.

  17. GaterNate

    Actually, speaking of Star Trek, that photo is of a cat, just a de-evolved cat.

  18. Keith Bowden

    What a sweetie!

  19. The Mutt

    Actually, that’s a photo of Stacy Keach.

  20. bad Jim

    In some parts of Spain, including Catalonia and the Basque region, ‘x’ is still used for the ‘sh’ sound. Moreover, they often use ‘tx” in place of ‘ch’.

  21. My wife is half Mayan and did extensive archaeological work in the Yucatan. Other words words igauna (and probably more common) are o’om and iwam. One of the cebtral Gods of the Mayan religion is Itzam, who has aspects fo the iguana and alligator; some mayans refers to iguanas as “itzam”.

    I live with a large green iguana, who insists on proper worship. She dominates the two cats, clearly showing that Itzam is superior to Bast.

  22. Thomas Siefert

    Oooh, ahhh, that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and screaming.

  23. Grand Lunar

    Cute little guy.
    Got them in Florida too.

    “If I ever write a Star Trek story….”

    A possible idea for your next work, Phil?
    Best of all, you can invoke good astronomy!

  24. KC

    @Scott How does your wife feel about 2012 nonsense?

  25. Crux Australis

    I would name him “Newton”.

  26. @KC It’s nonsense. White folk nonsense, too. The Mayan calendar just recycles, like we have a “New Year” between Dec 31 and Jan 1.

  27. Messier Tidy Upper

    Xoanon from Dr Who – The Face of Evil * was the first time I realised how cool name starting with “X’ and pronounced differently – “Zoanon” in this case – could be. Guess the original spacefarers that generated the Sevateem and Tesh were Mayans – except wouldn’t that have made it “Shoanon” instead? 😉

    I always thought it was the X was pronounced as ‘Z’ not “Sh” but then I’m no great fan of the Mayans anyhow. Human sacrifices – frequently captured prisoners – to the Sun God so the blood would make our Sun keep rising and the association with the 2012 nonsense, not such great things.

    … [Mayan is] just about the coolest spoken language I’ve ever heard.

    Don’t you mean one of the hottest? Given the cultural geography I’d have thought the coolest spoken language would be Inuit! Or maybe Swedish or Finnish? 😉

    * Where Leela first met the Doctor (Tom Baker) – a classic & still one of my all-time fave Dr Who epsiodes. :-)

  28. Messier Tidy Upper
  29. Messier Tidy Upper

    @23. Grand Lunar : Cute little guy. Got them in Florida too.

    Also in the Galapagos – including the surrounding ocean – see :


    & see :


    For the wiki-basics.

    Whilst :


    is a tribute to the iguanadon – the iguanas semi-namesake big guys! 😉

  30. Pilotlars

    So is Xur and the Kodan Armada Mayan too?

  31. mike burkhart

    Phil in a little known chapter of Star Trek history , there was an attempt to bring Star Trek back to tv in the 70s , the new show was going to be called : Star Trek phase 2 but Lenard Nimoy did not want to play Spock again so they were going to replace Spock with a Vulcan named Xon. Well the thing fell apart and the show never got to tv . But in 1977 when a movie called Star Wars became a big hit they decideed to make Star Trek the motion picture and Nimoy agreed to return as Spock.

  32. Rhanor

    I searched for “Star Trek” in Mayan (first had to translate to Spanish), I couldn’t find “Trek”, but “Star Voyage” became “Eek’ Xíinbal!” (Yucatan) .There were other alternatives for””Voyage”, but I chose “Xíinbal” ‘cos of course it begins with an X!

    And yes I know this is just a raw, word-to-word translation.

    …and “Star War(s)” is “Eek’ Ba’ate’el”…

  33. Why wait?

    You can start writing your part of the Star Trek story at http://starbase118.net

    I’ve been there for many years and it has helped me to improve my English :) (and of course, to have a lot of fun!)

    Astronomy + Trek: what a wonderful pair! :p

  34. Robert Carnegie

    One does not thank Xtoloc.

  35. Dan

    Tlaloc is totally where it’s at.

  36. Laurie

    I’ve always loved the word Xoloitzcuintle (SHOH-loyts-KWEENT-lee), the name of a breed of hairless dog in Mexico. I own a Khala, which is a related breed found in South America; he’s one of the most sweet-tempered dogs I’ve ever known.


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