How Countries Got Their Names
Have you ever wondered how a country got its name?
Many nations, such as France and Germany, were simply named for the people who lived on their land. Others, such as the United States, were given their moniker for obvious reasons. But what about places like Fiji, Ireland, Australia or even Vatican City?
We've uncovered the fascinating stories behind the names of beloved countries around the world.
When Christopher Columbus came upon the islands of the Caribbean during the 1400s, he gave them names that many still go by today.
Upon seeing Anguilla, a long, thin island, he dubbed it Anguilla, as anguila is Spanish for eel — also long, thin and surrounded by water.
The French and Italians have similarly spelled words with the same meaning — anguille and anguilla, respectively.
Spanish and Portuguese explorers, including Juan Diaz de Solís and Sebastian Cabot, first came across Argentina in the 1500s.
When Cabot navigated the freshwater river that emptied into the sea, he followed it to Uruguay, trading with the tribesmen who lived in villages along the river. Returning with silver trinkets, he dubbed the river Rio de la Plata, or "River of Silver."
Argentina's name followed suit. In Latin, silver is argentum.
A popular theory has it that Aruba's name comes from the Spanish phrase oro huba, or "there was gold." In reality, Spanish explorers were let down when they discovered the island, as it didn't contain the gold or precious minerals they sought. The name may actually derive from the fact that they viewed the island as "valueless."
The people who live on and visit today would highly disagree. Aruba is one of the most popular Caribbean islands for tourism, and its land is used to farm aloe.
It's also speculated that the name could come from the Caribbean Indian words ora, meaning "shell," and oubao, meaning "island."
Drawn on a map in 150 A.D. by Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek geographer and astronomer, the imagined land of Australia was labeled Terra Australis Icognita, Latin for"unknown land of the South." (Other names it went by include Terra Australis Nondum Cognita, "the southern land not yet known.") Ptolemy never actually visited Australia; he just assumed there was an unknown land mass there.
When Dutch and English settlers arrived much later, they named the continent New Holland and New South Wales, respectively. It was Matthew Flinders, who circumnavigated the island in the early 1800s, who returned its name to Australia.
Until 1866, what we know as Germany and Austria were a united country. As Austria is to the east of Germany, it made sense that Germans called the land das Österreichische — "eastern realm" in English.
The name stuck and Austria became its own country in 1918.
The Bahamas, made up of 700 islands and thousands of coral reefs, were tough to navigate when the Spanish first sailed through on their expeditions.
With so many reefs and sand bars encircling the islands, they called the collection baja mar, which loosely translates into "shallow sea." The nickname eventually morphed into the Bahamas.
The island of Barbados is covered in its national tree: Ficus citrifolia. With "hairy" roots that hang off its limbs, the tree looks bearded, which is why it is more commonly referred to as the bearded fig tree.
In Portuguese, os barbados translates into "bearded ones." And there you have Barbados.
When the Romans conquered Western Europe, they encountered multiple tribes. Incorporating them into one province the Romans referred to mainly as the land of the "Gauls," the largest tribal area was given the name Belgae by Julius Caesar himself.
Belgae meant "to swell" as in war, like a battle fury. (Perhaps the people here put up the biggest fight against the Romans?) Today, the land is known as Belgium.
With the majority of the country covered in rainforests, it should come as no surprise that Brazil's name is associated with trees.
The country's coastal forests are filled with Pau-brasil trees that ooze red sap (shown here) that's still used as a natural dye for food and textiles today.
It's this tree that gave Brazil its name: Pau means "tree" and brasil stood for "ember" to the Portuguese who colonized the country in 1500. Brazil remained under Portugal's control until it declared its independence in 1822.
When Columbus sailed toward Costa Rica, he saw a vast coastline and sprawling mountainous rainforests. With a setting like this, he assumed it was a land filled with riches.
In Spanish, Costa Rica literally translates into "rich coast."
The country didn't have the gold Columbus was seeking, but its beauty makes it rich in our eyes.
Famously, Greenland is covered in ice while Iceland is quite green. It turns out there's an intriguing story behind this confusing nomenclature.
It is said that when Viking Erik the Red discovered the massive island of Greenland in 985, he named it Grfnland in Norwegian in order to dupe others into believing the island was ideal for colonization. By sending people there, he hoped to keep Iceland (the greener isle) to himself.
However, scientists have uncovered proof that temperatures in Greenland were much warmer in Erik's day, so he may have correctly named it after all.
What else do you name a country that has the earth's equator running through it?
Ecuador is Spanish for "equator."
England's Captain James Cook sailed Polynesia in the 1700s, discovering many inhabited island nations and returning to Europe bearing the fruits, spices and minerals of his trades with the locals.
Sailing to the islands of Fiji, he encountered the Tongans, who told him their home was called Viti. Like many encountering a new word in a foreign tongue, Cook got the name a little mixed up, and thought the islanders were saying "feegee." One simple mistake and hundreds of years later: Fiji.
When you understand that Indus and nésos mean "Indian" and "island" in Greek, you can see how this nation, comprised of islands east of India, received its name.
The islands were referred to as the East Indies after Columbus called the Caribbean islands the West Indies. In 1602, the Dutch created the Dutch East India Company and maintained control until Indonesia declared independence in 1945. Once independent, the country renounced the Dutch name and returned to its original name of Indonesia.
Perhaps you have noticed Ireland is also sometimes called Éire? That's because this was originally the country's name, derived from Ériu, the name of a Gaelic mythical matron goddess.
In 1937, the United Kingdom aimed to stop the use of the Gaelic language, and chose to covert the Irish name into an English one. Because Ériu also happens to mean "land" in Old English, the country became known as Ireland.
Of course, many Irish still prefer to call their island by its original Gaelic name.
"Land of the Rising Sun" isn't just a nickname for Japan; it's the origin of its official name.
In Japanese, Japan is Nihon or Nippon, which translates to "the origin of the sun." The name refers to Japan's position east of China, which allows it to receive the sunrise before the Chinese. (So it's a bit of a dig to their rivals!)
Founded by freed American slaves in 1822, Liberia's name comes from the Latin word liber, meaning "free."
The name comes from Robert Goodloe Harper, a white senator from Maryland who was part of the American Colonization Society. This society worked to secure the land in West Africa and return freed slaves to Africa in a colony that became the independent nation of Liberia in 1847.
The ancient Mesoamerican Aztecs of Latin America occupied the land we know as Mexico for centuries before the Spanish arrived and took control.
In what is now the center of Mexico City, Aztecs lived in a city-state they called Tenochtitlan. The metropolis was situated on a swampy lake known as Texcoco, home to a cress called mexixin. When the Spanish arrived, they mistook mexixin to be the name of the city.
As the Spanish explored — and took — more land, Mexico was created.
Ready for an "A-ha!" moment?
With the Atlantic Ocean separating England from the northern land of Europe, sailors referred to the sea as Norþweg. In Old English, this simply means "way leading to the north" or "northern way."
Although the name was originally bestowed upon the sea, now the Norwegian Sea, by 880, the land was being called Norþweg, as well.
Panama's name isn't as simple to translate, and there are numerous stories about how it became known as such. One theory posits that when the first people explored Panama, it was at the height of summer, when butterflies were plentiful; Panama means "many butterflies" in the indigenous tongue.
Another theory, embraced by many linguists, is that the word is a Spanish deviation of an indigenous word for "far away": bannaba.
Regardless of its name, Panama's canal is the water gateway for the east and the west.
After Columbus explored the East Indies in the late 1400s, he inspired more explorers to take to the seas. Ruy López de Villalobos traveled from Mexico across the Pacific, stretching Spain's conquests around the globe.
When landing on the islands he called the Philippines, he paid homage to his king, Philip II. The name of Las Islas Filipinas soon became the name for all of the islands in this Pacific archipelago.
During his expedition in the Caribbean Sea, Columbus and his men ran dangerously low on fresh water. Praying to the Heavens that he would find land before they ran out, Columbus spotted three mountain peaks from his ship. He gave the life-saving island the name for the Holy Trinity and called it Trinidad.
You may think the capital of the Catholic Church's name is a religious one, but in actuality, the name was bestowed upon the land at the height of the Roman dynasty, which was not yet monotheistic.
This area to the west of the Roman Forum, Parthenon and Colosseum was nothing like the bustling civilization of Rome and instead a remote, marshy area called Ager Vaticanus. (Ager means "land" in Latin.)
In the 4th century, a basilica was constructed over the burial site of St. Peter the Apostle, who had been buried in a cemetery here in 64 A.D. To protect his grave and the basilica, Vatican City became home to the Catholic Church.
In Latin, Viaticum is the Eucharist given during Last Rites, but no one is is certain how the area originally received its Vatican name.
Venezuela's Lake Maracaibo can be credited with giving this country its name. When Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda saw the lake for the first time in the 1500s, he discovered the natives had built houses above it on stilts. He promptly named it for another place known for being built on water: Venice.
Venezuela translates into "Little Venice."