Where do country names come from?

I was listening to the BBC’s Word of Mouth podcast this week and they had a fascinating feature on how countries got their names. It was a very informative programme, which made me want to investigate further. Some of these origins are pretty straightforward; France is the land of the Franks, Poland of the Poles, Uzbekistan of the Uzbeks and Thailand of the Thais. However, some are more interesting.

Some places got their names after real or legendary people:

Bolivia Simón Bolívar

Colombia Christopher Columbus

Éire (Ireland)             Éire (Ériu), a Celtic fertility goddess

El Salvador Jesus (literally, The Saviour)

Israel Jacob, who was also called Israel in the Bible

Mozambique             Mussa Bin Bique

Philippines    King Philip II of Spain

Saudi Arabia             Muhammad bin Saud

Wikipedia also has some interesting dependent territories named after people:

Bermuda        Juan de Bermúdez

Cook Islands             Captain James Cook

Falkland Islands Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland

Martinique     Martin of Tours

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands George III of the United Kingdom and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Virgin Islands Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins

The programme also looked at certain controversies or curiosities regarding names. For the Dutch, Holland is just a region of the country. Indians call their country Bharat and the official transliterated name of the People’s Republic of China is: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo. China takes its English name from the state of Quin, a western Chinese kingdom during the Zhou dynasty. The programme also cited the theory, which I first heard on QI, that America is not named after Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard ap Meryk, whose name is anglicised to Richard Amerike or Ameryk. He was a fifteenth-century Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer and, sheriff of Bristol. I remain sceptical, but it is an interesting theory. I also learned that Pakistan’s name is a semi-acronym: the P is from Punjab; the A from the Afgania province; the K from Kashmir; the S from Sindh, and the -Stan from Baluchistan. They also featured what must be the most misleading name in the atlas. The Viking Erik the Red managed to persuade 500 Icelanders to go to barren, frozen land, where they set up two colonies. In a brilliant piece of marketing he had called it Greenland.

There are a lot of inaccurate folk etymologies. Brunei is one example. According to legend, Brunei was founded by Sultan Muhammad Shah. Upon discovering the place he is said to have exclaimed Baru nah, which is loosely translated as “That’s it!” or “Eureka”, from which the “Brunei” was derived. It sounds funny, but a more credible theory is that Brunei comes from the Sanskrit bhūmi, which means ‘land’.

Venezuela means ‘Little Venice’, and was so named because it reminded explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city. The connection does seem somewhat tenuous, although more apt now after years of misrule, the country does seem to be sinking fast.

The Oxford dictionaries blog has an A-Z of country name origins. Here is a selection:

Andorra The name Andorra comes from a local Navarrese word, andurrial, meaning ‘shrub-covered land’. It has also been suggested that the country took its name from Arabic al-Gandura, ‘the wanton woman’, a legacy from the Moors.

Argentina The name Argentina is said to have been coined by Spanish explorers who, when they first came to the region, noticed the silver ornaments worn by the natives. Thus the word is from the Spanish argentine, ‘silvery’, and means ‘(Land of) the Silver (River)’.

Japan The name means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and is a reference to Japan’s location east of China. It comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Jipen’, from the Chinese characters rì, ‘sun’, and bĕn, ‘origin’.

Liberia Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.

Madagascar The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.

Nauru The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.

New Zealand The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.

Panama Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.

Sierra Leone Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.

Solomon Islands The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.

Spain Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.

Zimbabwe Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.

The programme featured Avalon, as an example of a fictional country. They could have included more. I am currently watching the second series of The Man in The High Castle, which of course has its origins in a Philip K Dick novel. After the Axis victory in WWII the Greater Nazi Reich, a fascist puppet state on the East coast, is created. And the coming week an adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be shown on Hulu. So Gilead, a Christian-fundamentalist theocracy will become more famous. Some 500 years ago Thomas Moore invented Utopia. The name was a Greek pun meaning both no place and good place. Hollywood gave us Freedonia in Duck Soup and Bacteria, a satire of Italy under Mussolini in The Great Dictator. And finally I remember Qumran from the original Yes Minister series of the 1980s. The hapless Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker is on a visit to this oil-rich sheikdom located in the Persian Gulf. Hacker is not looking forward to “five hours of orange juice” and so a communications room is set up near the reception, which will contain illicit liquor. Then Hacker is periodically called to the room with messages from Mr Haig, Mr Walker from the Scotch Office, Mr Smirnoff of the Soviet Embassy, and a delegation of teachers.

The examples we have seen have been from books films and TV shows. But the New York Times actually invented a Central Asian country Kyrzbekistan, instead of Kyrgyzstan. The mockery directed at the paper on social media was unceasing:

Rumour has it that #Kyrzbekistan has been given the go-ahead to enter Eurovision 2015.

 Austranians don’t like Kyrzbesistanis ever since they have sided with Luxemstein in the United States of Amigos question #Kyrzbekistan

I suppose, if all nations are “imagined communities”, the NYT making one up just took that to its logical conclusion. #kyrzbekistan

You can’t just will a country out of existence… Stand up for #kyrzbekistan!

This concludes my journey into the origins of country names. I will conclude with a map about country etymologies that featured on the internet. I think I may have seen it already on Facebook, but it makes a lot more sense now. This is definitely one for the geography geeks. However, there are some errors on the map, so this would not be appropriate for a university thesis. i recommend clicking on the full -size version once you have opened it up.

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One Response to Where do country names come from?

  1. Alberto says:

    Fascinating.

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