The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 1)

It’s easy to forget that the map of the globe wasn’t always the way it is today. Borders have been redrawn too many times to count. Populations were abruptly combined into states by colonizers. The names that locals gave to their lands sometimes stuck and were sometimes overwritten by a foreign nation’s interpretation.

The names of some territories are thousands of years old, some mere decades, but the nomenclature for modern countries can be divided into a few telling categories:

Map by Abraham Ortelius (1570)

1. Celebrity Branding

People do love putting their names on things, including a startling amount of countries. America is derived from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer from the late 1400s and a cohort of Christopher Columbus, who Colombia is obviously named for. These guys at least sailed the seas, but a number of nations were named after rulers and politicians who’d never been: Mauritius in 1598 after Dutch ruler Maurice of Nassau, the Philippines in 1543 for King Philip II of Spain, and Seychelles for Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Finance Minister to King Louis XV of France.

2. Someone Else Called It

In the same vein, explorers (especially those from the 1400s-1700s) went by the “finders, namers” rule, which is why the official names of a great many countries don’t match up with how the locals refer to themselves. It’s not all Spanish and Italian though. There are plenty of holdovers from ancient Sanskrit, such as the Maldives from maladvipa (“garland of islands”) and Sri Lanka (“holy island”), as well as Latin and Greek, like Portugal from portus cale (“beautiful port”) and Monaco from monoikos (“single-dwelling”).

Although the Chinese refer to their country as Zhongguo (literally “Middle Kingdom” or “Central Nation”), the term China is an anglicized pronunciation of the Qin state. In existence since the 9th century BC, the Qin Dynasty was the beginning of an imperial system that lasted until 1912. And Japan is actually the Chinese pronunciation of the country’s name (“Land of the Rising Sun” as it lay to the east). While the characters are written the same in both languages, the Japanese pronunciation is Nihon.

Map by Johannes Kepler (1627)

3. Land of the…

Likely one of the oldest ways we humans demarcated what was ours versus what was theirs, the names of dozens of nations literally translate to Land of This or That Tribe. Included among these are Russia (Land of the Rus), Iran (Land of the Aryans) and Kazakhstan (Land of the Kazakhs). So who were the Rus, the Aryans and the Kazakhs? The nomenclature of these ethnic groups was fairly literal: rowers, nobles, and nomads, respectively.

4. Miscommunication

Some errors get set in stone. Singapore (“Lion City”) with its lack of lions comes to mind. Spain has a similar story of animal misidentification, as its rabbits were mistaken for African hyraxes (shrewmice) and earned it the name of “Land of the Hyraxes” in Phoenician. Indonesia is also oddly dubbed, as its name is Greek for “Indian islands”. Mauritania in west Africa was misnamed after the ancient Maghreb territory Mauretania, located in present-day northern Morocco.

This was such a blast to research that I decided to make this a two-part post.
Tune in next week for the remaining four types of country names!


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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.

Note: all images used in the above post are Public Domain.

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