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New Theories of the Origin of the Name Sarasota

Articles: Sarasota History

Author: John Barth, Jr.
Credit: Sarasota County Historical Resources

Sarasota History - New Theories of the Origin of the Name Sarasota photo

Residents of Sarasota have long speculated about the origin of the name. A plausible sounding daughter Sara was invented for explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed in the Manatee River in 1538, complete with a tragic love story to dramatize a 1916 “Sara de Soto” pageant. The pageant became an annual week-long celebration climaxed by a circus parade, and declined when the Barnum & Bailey winter camp moved to Venice in 1960. A more recent speculation is that the name may have meant Point of Rocks or Place of the Dance, but the truth may be more interesting.

An early Spanish map on sheepskin that turned up in London when Florida passed to British possession in 1763, shows the word “Zarazote” across present day Bradenton and Sarasota. When the coast was charted, the name appeared as Boca Sarazota (Sarazota Pass) between Lido and Siesta Keys, and by the 1850s the barrier islands and the bay were both labeled Sarasota on maps.

Zarazote is not a word of clearly Spanish origin like most other names on the 1763 map, and no specimen of the native Calusa language is known beyond some village names and one or two other words, which provide no basis for interpretation. So where did the name Zarazote come from?

I discovered recently that there is a neighborhood called Alta Zarazota (“High Zarazota”) in Bogotá, the capital of Columbia, which the Spanish explorers occupied just a few years before de Soto came to Florida. That makes a Florida native origin unlikely. It might be a Columbian native name of the Chibcha language family, also extinct. A manuscript Chibcha dictionary survives in the national library there, that may contain clues when typed and alphabetized, and an inquiry is underway.

It is more likely that the explorers brought the name from the Mediterranean, but a search of maps of the Mediterranean reveals no Zarazota. There is a city Zaragoza in Spain, called Saraqustah during the Arab presence there, an interpretation of the original name Caesar Augusta when founded by the Roman emperor Augustus. So the “Sara” in Sarasota may have come from “Caesar” like the word “Czar.”  Zarazota could be another Spanish-Arabic name commemorating another Caesar, but unlike “Zaragoza” there are no names of other Roman emperors likely to have become pronounced “azota.”

There are cities originally named Zara in Turkey, Iran, and Albania, which may refer to a fortress or palace, originating in the Iranian “thraya-“ (to protect). So the explorers may have known a Mediterranean Zarazota named for a fort or palace. Because the name De Soto refers to a thicket, there may have been a Mediterranean fortress in a thicket, or composed of a wooden palisade, for which the Columbian town was named. It is also possible that De Soto or his officers had in mind a ”Zara Soto” (Fort de Soto).

To provoke an indignant scholarly breakthrough, therefore, I offer a modest proposal of alternative derivations of the name from the languages of foreign sailors, some of whom apparently visited before the expeditions of de Leon, de Narvaez, and de Soto, and may have accompanied them here or in Columbia. Sailing ships often picked up sailors from diverse regions to replace crewmembers, and they may have recorded impressions of native names, or invented their own, or they may have been asked for a local name. Many languages have phrases similar to Zarazote or Sarasota.

If a Turkish guide accompanied de Soto, for example, and was asked the name of the wilderness before them, he might have responded “Sora Soto!” (“Ask de Soto!”), written down as Zarazote for all posterity. Or he may have suggested “suru soto” (Fort de Soto).
A Basque sailor may have rhapsodized that the area was “Zare zati!” (a piece of art), but if asked very rudely, he might have responded “Zara zata!” (thou nightjar).

An Italian settler might have asked for a map notation “saro sita” (I will be located) here. If the mapmaker was Latvian, the name may have lingered from a mere notation to correct the sketch of the Braden River “zaru soti” (branches colored in).

A Czech sailor who had seen hurricane damage here may have mentioned “zari suti” (September rubble), while a Maltese sailor may have felt that the area “saru seta” (could become) something, or a Slovenian sailor may have been impressed that this was a place of “zore zoto” (the dawn of the new era).

An Albanian sailor may have referred to a hut where he had dallied on shore and “zuri zute” (got caught) or even “zuri zati!” (the roof fell down). An Indonesian botanist pursued by Calusas may have bemoaned a “saru sita” (Cypress confiscation).

A Finnish sailor may have noted a place of “suru sota” (mourning of war), or may have mentioned a wild sailor story here as a “suru satu” (a sad fairy tale).

We may find that Zarazota was just another subtropical lowland recalled by the Spanish explorers, or we may be fortunate in being freed from history, to use our imaginations. Please note that these translations (capitalization matters) are provided by an online translation utility, and do not yet reflect scholarly consensus. Linguists, historians, researchers of historic Mediterranean place names and the Spanish colonial archives, and even native speakers of these and other languages are encouraged to object and offer further insights.
Notes and References

The name of Saratoga, New York refers to a native hunting grounds along both sides of the Hudson River. It may derive from the Mohawk language “Se-rach-ta-gue” meaning 'the hillside country of the quiet river'; or from “sharató:ken,” which means "where you get a blister on your heels."

[In modern times names move around more easily, especially street names. A street named Sarasota in Santiago de Querétaro, Mexico, is surrounded by streets named for other Florida cities. There is also a Sarasota Avenue in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, but it crosses Abraham Lincoln Avenue, both apparently having modern US namesakes.]

sara'i "palace, mansion; inn," from Iranian base *thraya- "to protect" (see seraglio).
seraglio (n.)
"harem," also the name of a former palace of the sultan in Istanbul, 1580s, from Italian seraglio, alteration of Turkish saray "palace, court," from Persian sara'i "palace, inn," from Iranian base *thraya- "to protect" (cognates: Avestan thrayeinti "they protect"), from PIE *tra-, variant form of root *tere- (2) "to cross over, pass through, overcome" (see through).
The Italian word probably reflects folk etymology influence of serraglio "enclosure, cage," from Medieval Latin serraculum "bung, stopper" (see serried).
sierra (n.) Look up sierra at Dictionary.com
"a range of hills," 1610s, from Spanish sierra "jagged mountain range," literally "saw," from Latin serra "a saw" (compare serrated), which is of unknown origin.

Arabic names
Šarīš. Jerez de la Frontera, Spain
Saraqustah. Zaragoza, Spain (from prior Roman city there Caesaraugustus)
Warzāzāt. Ouarzazate, Morocco
Zara-thustra He who (manages/likes/has)(old/angry/gold/yellow) camels
Zara is a city in Iran

Potential bases for Zarazote in cities named for Roman Emperors A-Z/C/S/o-tus
Zaragoza, Spain, from Arabic Saraqustah (from prior Roman city there Caesaraugustus)
Caesar became Kaiser, Czar, and Tsar,
The original meaning of the name is unknown. The four most common derivations of the cognomen "Caesar" are
1.    from caesaries, 'hair', because the founder of this branch of the family was born with a full head of hair. (Ironic, if true, because Julius Caesar himself was balding in later life.) This is the etymology favored by Festus.
2.    from caesius, an eye color variously translated today as 'grey', 'blue-grey', and even 'blue'. (Julius Caesar himself had brown eyes.[9])
3.    from caesum, 'cut out', because the first Caesar was cut from his mother's womb (see Caesarean section). This is the etymology favored by Pliny the Elder.[10] (Julius Caesar himself could not have been so delivered, because this dangerous operation was normally done only upon a dead woman, and his mother was known to have lived for many years after his birth.[11])
4.    from caesai, a "Moorish" (maybe Punic) word for "elephant" because the first Caesar had killed such a beast in battle. This is the etymology favored by Gaius Julius Caesar himself.[12]
(most also used earlier emperor names in their titles)
Emperor name            Latin->Arabic->Spanish city name?
Antoninus Pius     138-161    Zarantona?
Marcus Aurelius    161-180    Zararela?
Clodius Albinus    193-197    Zaralbina?
Aemilianus        253        Zaramela?
Aurelian        270-275    Zararela?
Avitus    A.         455-456    Zaravita?
Anthemius A.         467-472    Zaranthema?
None of these are very promising.

City Names in Mediterranean
    Zara Izmir
    Zara Istanbul
    Tsaritsa, Volgograd
    Saraswati, Uttar Pradesh
    Tzararacua, Ejercito Mexicano, Michoacán

Origin of the Surname Soto
The deSoto family name refers to residence in one of numerous towns named Soto from Spanish “soto” (thicket or grove) from Latin “saltus” (pasture land with forest).

    But, alas, there are many other places named like Zarazote: In Mexico, there are streets named Zarazate, Zarazota, Sarazate, and Sarasate. In Columbia, there is an old neighborhood of Bogota named Zarazota.

Spanish place names
Zarazota (neighborhood), Bogota, Colombia
Zarazota (avenue), Santo Domingo, National District, DR
Zarazate (street), Himno Nacional 1a. Sección, San Luis Potosi, Mexico
Sarazate (street), Peralvillo, Cuauhtémoc, Mexico City, Mexico
Sarasate (street), León Moderno, León, Mexico

Chibcha dictionary (17th cent Spanish script, National Library, Bogota, Columbia)
Biblioteca Nacional de Bogota
Entries “La Palabra *** significa ****
Library contacts

cggaitan@mincultura.gov.co Maria Consuelo Gaitan Gaitan, Director

Spanish-English text translation site: