Mask of Tlaloc, nahua god of the rain (Nationa...
Mask of Tlaloc, Nahua God of the Rain; Image via Wikipedia

There’s Luna and Stella. Skylar and Haley, too. How would this celestial appellation wear on a child?

Thanks to Claire for suggesting Citlali as our Baby Name of the Day.

Parents love names with attractive meanings, and why not? At some point, our kids will be able to Google. Just look at the comments for Caleb – here or on any baby name site – and you can watch parents pretzel themselves trying to figure out if a name that might mean “dog” is an insult.

Maybe that’s why nature names are so big these days. They’re vaguely spiritual, but not as specifically religious as Mary. Many of them have a modern feel, though you can find antiques like Esther, too. And it is easy to find international variants, like model Niki Taylor’s daughter, Ciel, from the French word for sky.

Depending on your background, Citlali is either a great example of an exotic name borrowed from the natural world, or maybe just a bit over the top. Like Stella, she means star. But in this case, the source language is Nahuatl. You can hear her pronunciation here: SEET lahl lee.

You might find her listed as an Aztec name. Aztec comes from Aztlan, the mythological place the Mexica people considered their Garden of Eden. Aztec is the word that outsiders used to describe not only the Mexicas, but also the empire they ruled. It’s easy to be fascinated by stories of pyramid building and human sacrifice, but there’s far more substance there.

Nahuatl refers to a group of languages spoken by around 1.5 million people, mostly in Central America. If you’ve eaten a tomato or an avocado, you’ve had a taste of Nahuatl. It was originally written in ideographs. By the 1500s, Mesoamericans merged Nahuatl with the Latin alphabet and developed a written form that was used for practical matters as well as literary and creative endeavors. It makes the language relatively accessible and defines Classical Nahuatl.

Like Latin, Classical Nahuatl doesn’t exist as a living language, but Nahuatl perseveres in various dialects, somewhat altered by the influence of Spanish. Nahua culture embraced compound words – try your hand at this puzzle and you’ll see how you can fit a whole sentence into just one word. There’s a mountain in Mexico called Citlaltepec – hill of the star.

Citlali has been used for some time, for men and women, and sometimes spelled Citlalli. The earliest reference I found was 1520, when Chief Citalali ruled Cocula, a city in Jalisco, Mexico.

There’s a long list of possible Nahua names to consider, and here’s a great video that will introduce pronunciations – as well as the politics.

There’s a Citlali in Laura Esquivel’s novel Law of Love, and I suspect I’m missing another influence. From 2001 to 2006, she was popular enough to rank on the fringes of the US Top 1000.

If you or your partner trace your ancestry to Mexico, Citlali might make for a surprising heritage choice. But like Cohen, if you choose the name merely for sound and style, you may find that it is interpreted by some as insulting.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. My son goes to school with a little girl named Citlalic. I think it’s very pretty and really suits her. I just wonder where the “c” on the end comes from.

    1. in Nahua culture adding ‘c’ to the end of a persons name is a way of showing endearment or respect.

  2. This name is really popular in Mexico, mostly for teens to 30-somethings. I’ve seen so many spelling variations, including Zitlali, Citlaly, Xitlaly, Xitlalli, Zitlaly, Xitllali, and Citlally, basically any way you can make close to the same sound. I chalk the variety up to Mexicans who don’t speak Nahuatl (which after all is not widely spoken anymore) choosing this name and spelling it the way that makes the most sense to them in Spanish.

    1. that probably also accounts for the name’s popularity in the US, probably mostly immigrants or people of mexican descent using it.

  3. I like the sound of Citlali / Citlalli / Xitlali when pronounced as in the audio. I believe the main reason some spell it with an X and end it with a Y is because parents want a kr8tyv spelling. Since Xochitl (meaning “flower”) is also Nahuatl, and in Spanish X and C can sound exactly like S, it stands to reason that somebody would extend that logic to spell both nature names with an X.

  4. When I first saw this listed I said, “KIT-lah-lee” in my head, which I found rather pretty. However, once I found out how the name was meant to be pronounced I wasn’t quite a charmed. Now I keep accidentally saying “ZIT-lah-lee”.

  5. Ooh, Citlali is really pretty. But I do think that you need the proper heritage to carry it off, otherwise it kind of loses a lot of the meaning. Also, I initially thought SIT-lali, not SEET-lali so I don’t think her pronunciation is automatic. And yet, in our never ending quest for lovely, elaborate, feminine appellations, I agree with Claire that I can see Citlali rising in popularity.

  6. Thanks for looking into this one, Abby! I only heard this name for the first time last year, but its unique beauty instantly awakened my curiosity. 179 girls were given the name Citlali in 2010, and adding in the spelling variations it’s almost quadruple that. I can definitely see this one continuing to rise in popularity.

  7. I was told by a Spanish teacher, about 10 years ago, that the letter combination TL is pronounced together, e.g. Spanish speakers would say ah-TLAHN-tee-co for Atlantico, rather than at-LAN-tee-co. So, I’m wondering if Citlali is pronounced see-TLAH-lee instead by modern Spanish speakers.

    The name has a prettiness to it, but I wouldn’t love the Seat-Lolly pronunciation.

    1. My name is Citlalli and my grandfather is an indigenous man who spoke náhuatl it’s pronounced see-TLAH-lee for me. But I think everyone’s family and background is different so the variety makes sense I respect every different pronunciation the person with the name tells me…bc I believe they are entitled more than anyone to tell people how to pronounce their name…just wanted to share my thoughts thanks:)

  8. I can’t bring myself to pronounce Citlali the way it’s intended and keep ending up with sit-LAY-lie. I like the name Laylie anyway, so dropping the “Cit” and moving on is what I’m taking out of this! But it’s nice and very, very unique. As long as I could wrap my head around the pronunciation, I’d be happy to address a neice or playmate as Citlali.

  9. I have also seen it spelled Xitlali.I think it sounds beautiful ,but at first look it would be very difficult for people to pronounce if it is unfamiliar to them.

    1. That’s right, Crystal – it is Xitlali in some places. Thank you for mentioning it. Anyone out there understand the switch?

      My challenge is that I keep writing it Citali – Like Italy with a C. The “lali” part – with that repeating L sound – has an awful lot of appeal. But I cannot imagine using this one without some cultural connection. Well – maybe in the middle spot.

      1. I don’t understand the switch from a C to an X, because those letters aren’t interchangeable. In my understanding of Nahuatl, it would change the pronunciation to “SHEE” rather than “SEE.”

        (The C can be both hard and soft, like in English and Spanish, but X is predominately a soft “sh” or “zhs” sound, like in the name Xochitl. It’s sometimes pronounced as a kind of…breathy, back-of-the-throat stop, like the J in Spanish, but that’s a modern thing and not really correct to Nahuatl.)

      2. SHEET-lahl-lee could lead to some pretty horrific teasing in a predominantly English-speaking culture.

  10. Citlali isn’t my cup of meat, but for the right person, it’s a fantastic choice. Pretty meaning, pretty sound, but so not for this Russian/Scot! 😀