The Tangled Roots of Countries’ Names (Part 2)

Naming a country is complicated. Sometimes it’s appropriate to draw from historical context and sometimes it’s better to create a brand new moniker. Sometimes it’s easier to just call a place after its landscape and sometimes it’s worth taking the time to craft a name that will reflect everyone involved. As previously mentioned, the origin stories behind nations’ names, tangled and strange though they are, can be separated into groups.

Last week, we talked about countries named after famous individuals or christened by foreigners who occasionally got things wrong. And here are the final four categories of origin stories behind nations’ names:

Map of South/Southeast Asia by Rigobert Bonne (1770)

5. Geography

Much like naming a land after the people living there, the habit of naming a place after its geography is a global albeit uncreative trend. Haiti, Kenya, Maldives, Montenegro and Sierra Leone all translate to a variation on mountains. Water has shaped land for millennia, so it’s no surprise that a number of littoral countries are named after rivers, lakes and seas. The Bahamas are derived from the Spanish baja mar (shallow sea). New Zealand is from the Dutch for sea land. Bahrain means the two seas in Arabic, likely after the bays it lies between. Flora and fauna also played a role in christening some countries, such as Kosovo (Serbian for Field of Blackbirds) and Brazil, which is derived from the Portuguese for red wood.

6. Coming Together

After the reams of nations dubbed by foreign conquerors, it’s pleasant to know that there are also countries named after forming alliances. Hungary’s ancient origins lie in the Oghur-Turkic On-Ogur, meaning ten [tribes of the] Ogurs. Tanzania is a blend and simplification of “United Republic of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, regions that took their names from a lake and coast respectively. Most interesting is Pakistan, which is actually an acronym coined in 1933, a combination of the names of its provinces: Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan.

Nautical map by Fernão Vaz Dourado (1570)

7. A Few Translations Later

These names have a multilingual heritage, with the pronunciation and spelling being sifted through a variety of languages over the centuries. Eritrea is the Italian interpretation of the Latin translation of the Greek for Land of the Red Sea. Algeria is from the French Alger, from the Catalan Aldjère, from the Ottoman Turkish Cezayir and originally from the Arabic al-Jazāʼir, which means the islands.

It was a pretty tortuous trail to Korea, which is the modern version of the anglicized Corea, from Marco Polo’s Cauli, the Italian rendition of Gāo Lí, the Chinese name for the 918–1392 kingdom of Goryeo (also spelled Koryŏ), derived from the older kingdom of Goguryeo (a combination of lofty and walled city or center). Whew.

8. Mysteries

While some countries’ names have specific birth dates and clear rationale, there are some for which the exact etymology has been lost to time. Many theories and folk tales and arguments abound, of course, but no one can say for certain the original meanings of: Andorra, Armenia, Belize, Bhutan, Brunei, Chile, Cuba, Cyprus and Djibouti. The list of countries with uncertain or debatable roots is even longer.

So, next time you book a flight, spend some time researching where your destination got its name. It’s a fascinating taste of the history of a country’s land, its people and its relationship with its neighbors.


StraitsJourneys is a place for travelers to find and book deep travel experiences tailored to specific interests. The experiences are presented by carefully selected local experts. Click here to register your interest in StraitsJourneys and be the first to receive our stories, updates and offers.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s