When we think of the beginning of the world, we often think about nature in its purest form, free from human intervention, but for us to understand this nature or any nature for that matter, to quantify or classify it, we find ourselves tracing the human impact on those concepts. Naming things is a part of such understanding; although there is not much data on when and how the phenomena of naming things took off, we can presume certain events like the creation of language and its spread to have been a defining factor. Naming of countries is usually characterised by four determinants—a directional description of the country, a feature of the land, a tribe name, or an important person, usually male.
18 Facts about the names of different countries
1. Many times, the English name of a country is the result of settlers or traders arriving and naming the country after the tribe they come across or adopting the name the tribe already had for it. When conquering is on the minds of the invaders, they name the land after their chief, its geography, or something similar to their homeland.
2. Not all nations have the same name in all languages; Germany, for instance, is known as Deutschland in its native tongue. Germany often translates differently in different languages.
3. Germania, a Roman Latin term that is most probably taken from Gaelic, is where the English language gets the word “Germany” from. However, Germany as we know it now, didn’t exist as a nation until the late 19th century. In Old High German, Deutschland was the name given to the combined states of Prussia, Bavaria, and neighbouring principalities in 1871. By that point, the land had been recognised by the English name Germany/Germania for such a long time that it had become ingrained; numerous other countries gave it names that were similar. Thus, it is one of the rare instances where a nation’s name for itself is more recent than the names by which other nations use to refer to it.
4. A third of the countries in the world got their current names from an older group of people from these countries. Europe has significant examples of this kind of naming. Switzerland is named for the Schwyz people, Italy is named for the Vitali tribe, and France is named for the Franks. South Korea is also an example for this type of naming. South Korea’s name in Korean is written as Daehan Minguk (romanised form of 대한민국). Daehan comes from the three Han tribes from the second century BC, meaning “Great Han” or “Big Han.” “Han” is another word for “big.”
5. Several nations have names based on the characteristics of its citizens: The name Burkina Faso, which was first used in 1984, is French for “country of honest men” or “land of incorruptible people.” It is possible that the names of Guinea and its offspring—Guinea-Bissau, Papua New Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea—come from the Tuareg term “aginaw,” or “black people,” which the Portuguese first used to refer to a larger region of west Africa in the 15th century.
6. A lot of nations’ names have connection to their land. Algeria is one of those nations. It was named after its capital city of Algiers meaning “the islands”. That name previously applied to the city’s bay, which at one time contained small islands but which have since been connected to the mainland or destroyed during the construction of the harbour.
7. Iceland is, indeed, what it sounds like, though it’s a misnomer. Everett-Heath explains, “Iceland was allegedly renamed by the first Norse to discourage travellers from visiting an island that, in reality, had comparably moderate annual temperatures (thanks to the Gulf Stream).
8. It’s not clear which explorer named Costa Rica (“the rich coast”), but one account suggests it was Christopher Columbus, who saw indigenous people wearing gold and didn’t realize it was imported.
9. The Spanish gave Honduras its name, meaning “depth” or “deep water,” and they also named Barbados, or “bearded ones,” allegedly after the great banyan tree found there, Ficus citrifolia, because of their long aerial roots.
10. A lot of countries are named after their geographical position. Zhōngguó , the endonym for China, means “middle kingdom,” and Nippon, the endonym for Japan, means “country of the rising sun,” alluding to the fact that Japan lies east of China and faces the sunrise from China’s perspective. According to the old Greek theory of a land extremely far south, Terra Australis Incognita, or “Unknown Southern Land,” Australia means “southern.”
11. St. Lucia is one of the few instances of a nation bearing a female name; St. Lucy was a Syracuse native who lived in the third century. Several of the Caribbean islands that Columbus discovered were given their names after saints he admired.
12. St Kitts is named for Saint Christopher, his own namesake. The word “tavaco,” which refers to the Caribs’ tobacco smoking pipe and which, according to legend, Columbus felt was neat, is where Tobago gets its name, claims the Commonwealth. Although not given by Columbus, Colombia also bears his name.
13. As mentioned earlier, a lot of countries take their names from important men; following are some examples of this phenomenon. Bolivia is named after the Venezuelan rebel Simón Bolvar, while the Philippines are named after Spain’s King Philip II of the 16th century. Jacob, who is regarded as the Jewish people’s patriarch, is also known as Israel. Maurice of Nassau, a Dutch magistrate from the sixteenth century, is the namesake of Mauritius.
14. Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer who is credited with understanding that the continent the Europeans first encountered in the late 1400s was not India, is the man whom the United States of America is called after. The term “after the discoverer Amerigo…as though it were the American land or America” was proposed in 1507 by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who at the time was only referring to South America.
15. When a Spanish expedition, which included Vespucci, observed homes built over water, they felt it reminded them of Venice and gave the place the name Venezuela.
16. Grenada was given its name by seafarers who felt the island resembled Granada, Spain.
17. A lot of countries also got named as a result of mistakes; Canada supposedly comes under this category. The name Canada is most likely derived from the Huron-Iroquois word “kanata,” which means “village” or “settlement,” and was mistaken to be the name of the country by the 16th-century French explorer Jacques Cartier.
18. There are some nations whose names remain contested or unclear. Malta might mean “refuge” or “bees,” and Nepal has received a variety of interpretations for its name, none of which are conclusive, including “beginning of a new era,” “centre country,” “holy place,” and “home of wool.”
We notice how the names of countries play a key role in life, spreading influence over all aspects, be it political, social, or cultural. Understanding the wide array of methods employed in the creation of these names helps put a lot of things in perspective then.