The Origin of the Name, Sarasota
Articles: Sarasota History
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 (scene pictured above) became an annual week-long celebration climaxed by a circus parade, and declined when the Barnum & Bailey winter camp was moved to Venice in 1960. But Sara is not a Spanish given name, and there is no known historical basis for the story; it is probably just a pleasant myth.
A more recent speculation is that the name may have meant Point of Rocks or Place of the Dance, but there is little or no linguistic or historical basis for this hypothesis. The true story is more interesting.
The Original Form “Zarazote”
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. But there are more likely origins of the name Zarazote.
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. Clues in the Mediterranean make it likely that the explorers brought the name with them.
However, it is possible that Zarazota is a native Columbian name of the Chibcha language family, which like the Calusa language is extinct. But a manuscript Chibcha dictionary survives in the national library in Bogota, that may contain clues when typed and alphabetized, and an inquiry is underway.
Mediterranean Origins Likely
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 CaesarAugusta 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. It is conceivable that De Soto or his officers had in mind a ”Zara Soto” (Fort de Soto), but the deSoto family name itself refers to one of many towns named Soto from the Spanish “soto” (thicket or grove) from Latin “saltus” (pasture land with forest). So any Mediterranean fort or palace in a grove or a town named Soto, may have been called Zarazota, Zara Soto, or even Sara de Soto.
A Modest Proposal of Humorous Alternative Derivations
Less likely origins of the name can be derived from phrases in other languages suggesting special circumstances, but at present these are without historical basis. To provoke an indignant scholarly breakthrough, therefore, these alternative derivations of the name are offered 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, because sailing ships often picked up sailors from diverse regions to replace crewmembers. They may have recorded impressions of native names, or invented their own, or they may have been asked for a local name.
A Turkish guide accompanying de Soto, for example, when asked the name of the wilderness before them, might have responded “Sora Soto!” (“Ask de Soto!”), written down as Zarazote for all posterity.
A Basque sailor may have rhapsodized that the area was “Zare zati!” (part of art), but if asked very rudely, he might have responded “Zara zata!” (thou nightjar), or perhaps even “Zara zetu!” (thou hast begot other sons).
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 “Sari suti” (September rubble). 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 a new era) or perhaps no more than “Zaru soti” (grilled peat).
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 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.