Etymology: Origin of the Word “Manila”

Etymology: Origin of the Word “Manila”

Ever wondered how Manila got its name? There have been several assumptions and contentions relating to the origin of the word “manila” among historians and linguists. The truth is, no one knows exactly how the capital city of the Philippines got its name. But the theories advanced by scholars are still interesting nonetheless.

The Etymology of Manila

An antiquated assumption claims that the origin of the word “manila” came from the word “may” and “nilad” that translates to “where nilad is found.” Note that nilad is the Filipino name for two different plant species: the water hyacinth that still grows on the banks of Pasig River and the scyphiphora which is a shrub-like tree that grows near mangrove swamps.

The toponym seems to have originated from an 1887 essay by Filipino physician and historian Trinidad Pardo de Tavera. Separate writings from Emma Helen Blair and James Alexander Robertson in 1903, and Julio Nakpil in 1940 repeated this assertion.

Nevertheless, the notion that the name “manila” originated from the word “nilad” became widely accepted in literature and popular use. The underpass “Lagusnilad” near the Manila City Hall and the water utility company “Maynilad Water Services” demonstrate the pervasiveness of this notion.

But the aforementioned assumption is inaccurate. Historian Joseph Baumgartner made a compelling argument against the “may nilad” etymology and the “nilad” toponym of Manila. For starters, he noted that it was unlikely for native Tagalog speakers to drop the letter “d” in nilad. The place had always been written as “Maynila” in early documents as well.

Filipino historian Ambeth Ocampo shared the same sentiments. He explained that the place had always been called “Maynila” in all early documents and never with the final “d” consonant

Baumgartner also mentioned that although the scyphiphora was endemic in the area, the water hyacinth was recently introduced in the Philippines from South America and therefore could not have been the “nilad” plant referred to in the toponym.

Nevertheless, Baumgartner made a counter-assumption that remains valid today: that the word “Maynila” came from the phrase “may-nilà” that translates to “where indigo is found.” He explained that “nilà” came from the Sanskrit word “nīla” which refers to the indigo plant, and by extension, to the presence of indigo-yielding plants that grew in the settlements in early Manila.

The historian stressed that the phrase “may-nilà” was used more likely as reference to the presence of the indigo-yielding plants and not to the fact that traders of indigo dye inhabited the early settlement. He noted that the trade only emerged in the 18th century.

It is also interesting to note that “tayum” is the native Tagalog name for the indigo plant. The name of the street in Manila now known as Tayuman accordingly translates to “where the indigo plant is.” Nevertheless, Maynila was later adopted into Spanish as Manila.


  • Baumgartner, J. 1975. Manila — Maynilad or Maynila? Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society. 3(1): 52-54. JSTOR: 29791188
  • Blair, E. H. and Robertson, J. A. 1903. The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898. The Arthur H. Clark Company
  • Nakpil, J. 1940. A Suggestion to the Tagalistas to Elucidate the Origin of the Name of the Capital City of the Philippines: Manila. Which of these Three Terms or Names Is the More Accurate: Maynilad, Manilad, or Manila?
  • Ocampo, A. 2008. Looking Back: Pre-Spanish Manila. Philippine Daily Inquirer.
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