[Reading level: C1 – Advanced]
Our countries’ names instill in us a sense of pride. Our leaders use them as emotional triggers in speeches, and so do citizens, creating slogans around country names to rally support on social media and conjure unity in protests. But just like our first names are handed to us without our input, the names of nations are inherited, arbitrary, and, often, absurd. Sometimes we get names we don’t want, and our efforts to correct don’t stick.
According to our research, the majority of country names fall into just four categories:
- a directional description of the country
- a feature of the land
- a tribe name
- an important person, most likely a man
Type one: Tribes, kingdoms, ethnic groups – Loại 1: Bộ lạc, vương quốc, dân tộc
By far the greatest plurality – a third – of the world’s countries get their current names from some older group of people. There’s a big cluster in Europe: France is named for the Franks; Italy for the Vitali tribe; Switzerland for the Schwyz people. 대한민국, romanized as Daehan Minguk, is the Korean name for South Korea. “Daehan” means “Great Han” or “Big Han,” after three Han tribes from the 2nd century BC. (“Han” can also mean “big.”) Vietnam means Viet people of the south.
In the last century it’s also been a way for countries to reclaim a much older identity: In 1957 the Gold Coast gained independence from the British and was renamed Ghana, after the older empire that broke up in the 13th century.
A few countries have names that describe their people’s attributes: Burkina Faso, coined in 1984, means “land of honest men” or “land of incorruptible people.” Guinea and its namesakes – Guinea-Bissau, Papua New Guinea, Equatorial Guinea – come possibly from the Tuareg word “aginaw,” “black people,” used by the Portuguese in the 15th century to refer to a larger region of west Africa.
Papua New Guinea is thought to be a description of the people native to Melanesia, “papua” reportedly meaning “frizzy-haired,” and Guinea from the Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retes, who in 1546, thought they looked like the African Guineans (i.e. they had dark skin).
Type two: A special land – Loại 2: Một vùng đất đặc biệt
About a quarter of the world’s country names come from some aspect of the land.
Algeria is named after its capital city, Algiers, meaning “the islands.” That name once described the city’s bay, which once had tiny islands in it, but which have since become connected to the mainland or been destroyed in development of the harbor. Montenegro’s endonym, Crna Gora, means “black mountain,” a reference to the southwestern mountain Lovćen. Iceland is, indeed, what it sounds like, though it’s a misnomer.
Some names about land features are clustered in places where borders were drawn up by colonialists, perhaps because they were given by outsiders seeing the lands through the eyes of foreigners.
It’s not clear which explorer named Costa Rica (“the rich coast”), it was suggested to be Christopher Columbus, who saw indigenous people wearing gold and didn’t realize it was imported. The Spanish gave Honduras its name, meaning “deep water”.
Sierra Leone is thought to have been named “lion mountains” by the Portuguese, probably a reference to the roaring sound of thunder in the hills above Freetown, not actual lions. Singapore means “lion city,” and the lion head is a national symbol. But there aren’t any known lions in Singapore. According to legend the Sumatran prince Sang Nila Utama was hunting in Singapore and came across an animal he thought was a lion, “singa” in Malay, and gave the name Singa Pura to the island he was on.
Type three: East, west, somewhere in the middle – Loại 3: Đông, tây, đâu đó ở giữa
About 25 countries are named for their location. Zhōngguó in Chinese means “middle kingdom,” and Nippon, the endonym for Japan, is “land of the rising sun,” referring to the fact that Japan is east of China, i.e. in the direction of the sunrise from China’s point of view. Norway, “northern way.”
Timor-Leste means “east east.” It comes from “timur,” Malay for “east,” and “leste,” Portuguese for “east.” Australia means “southern,” based on a land very far south theorized by the ancient Greeks.
Type four: Men – Loại 4: một người
By our count, there are roughly another 25 countries named for some person of importance.
Some are obvious: The Philippines are named after Spain’s 16th-century King Philip II, and Bolivia is named after the Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar. Israel is another name of Jacob, thought to be the patriarch of the Jewish people. Mauritius is named for Maurice of Nassau, the 16th-century Netherlands magistrate.
The United States of America is named for the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, the person credited with realizing that the continent the Europeans bumped into in the late 1400s was not India. In 1507 German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller suggested these lands to be name “America”.
Colombia is named after Columbus, though not by him.
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