What's in a Name?: The Incredible Stories Behind 10 Country Names

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Greenland

Inukshuk A strange name to give a country that is almost entirely covered by a vast ice sheet, wouldn't you say? As it turns out the moniker 'Greenland' was a deliberately erroneous name that was given as part of a feat of Viking propaganda engineered by Erik the Red in an effort to tempt potential settlers to the land.
The story goes that Erik 'The Red' Thorvaldsson was exiled from his native land of Iceland for a number of murderous crimes and sailed north, settling in the frozen wasteland that would eventually become Greenland for the duration of his sentence.
After completing his term of exile Erik returned to Iceland with tales of the supposedly 'Green Land' that he had made his residence for the last three years, intending to recruit bodies to come and populate it. Recognising that 'men [would] desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name' , Erik deceitfully called it 'Greenland' as part of his marketing campaign.
His deception was wildly successful: around 500 people followed him to form two colonies on the island and Greenland became an inhabited island.1


Cameroon

People from Cameroon When sailing along the Wouri River in 1472, Portuguese explorers were struck by the vast numbers of ghost shrimp that were swarming in the water. As a result they christened the river the 'Rio dos Camarões', or 'River of Prawns' and the name 'Cameroon' was derived from this.2


Madagascar

Lemur in Madagascar The Italian explorer Marco Polo is credited with christening the island of Madagascar, but his choice of name reveals the slightly embarrassing truth that he never actually visited the country…
Polo, as the second-hand author of The Travels of Marco Polo describes within the manuscript an island that is home to an abundance of leopards, bears and lions', together with 'more elephants than any country in the world'. However, having never set foot on the shores of what would become known as Madagascar, Polo was unware that there were no such creatures on the island - in fact, Polo was mistakenly giving Madagascar a description that was supposed to relate to the Somalian town of Mogadishu. His error was compounded by the fact that he then gave the island the name 'Madagascar', a corruption of 'Mogadishu'.
Two hundred years later a Portuguese explorer attempted to re-name the island 'St Lawrence', but by that time it was too late - Marco Polo's ill-chosen name of 'Madagascar' had already become recognised as the official name of country. 3


Britain

Windsor Castle While Braveheart may have been lambasted by historians for historical inaccuracies, Mel Gibson's blue war-paint could provide the key to the origin of the name 'Great Britain'. Related to the word 'Pretani' or 'Prydain' in Welsh, the name is thought to refer to the body paint and tattoos of the early inhabitants of this green and pleasant land. 4


The Solomon Islands

Solomon Islands Sunset Despite being almost 9,000 miles away from Israel, The Solomon Islands are named after the legendary Israeli King Solomon: the fabled monarch who was rich beyond all imagining and supposedly buried his vast fortune in a series of underground mines known as King Solomon's Mines.
The search for Solomon's fabled treasure has been ongoing since time immemorial and long before the 19th century novel King Solomon's Mines popularised the idea. As explorers fruitlessly searched for the King's riches, the search moved further and further away from Israel until Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa proposed the idea that the mines must be located in a then-mythical part of the globe known as Terra Australis Incognita, or 'Unknown Southern Land'…
De Gamboa was a Spanish Government Official living and working in Peru in the 16th Century. He became fascinated with the Incas and was convinced that their incredible wealth must have come from Terra Australis Incognita, which was thought to be a rich land somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere of the globe. This idea was also fuelled by the thought that Ophir - the land thought to be the source of Solomon's gold - was also in the same region. Armed with this theory, de Gamboa put together an expedition and sailed west from Peru, eventually landing on a string of islands to the north-west of the as-yet undiscovered Australia.
The expedition failed to find the mines on these islands too, but the details of their expedition had become legendary in their own right and the islands became known as The Solomon Islands anyway.


Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Village As the Portuguese explorer Pedro de Sintra sailed along the West African coast he was most struck by the mountains he could see on the land and christened the land mass 'Serra Leoa', meaning 'Lion Mountain'. It is unclear as to why the mountains reminded de Sintra of lions - but the three main theories are that the mountains resembled the teeth of a lion; that they looked like sleeping lions; or that there was a thunderstorm at the time, that sounded like a lion's roar. 5


Venezuela

Venezuela, Isla Margarita At around the same time that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and discovered the New World, three other explorers also made the voyage across the Atlantic and happened across a land in which the natives were living in homes on stilts over the waters of Lake Maracaibo.
This style of waterfront living put the European travellers in mind of Venice and therefore Alonso de Hojeda, Amerigo Vespucci and Juan de la Cosa named it Veneziola, or 'little Venice'. While it is questionable just how close this comparison could really be (the explorers brought back terrifying tales of cannibalism with them when they returned), the version of the name that we have today is an evolution of this Italian moniker that likens it to the European City of Water. 6


Belize

Belize Beach Hut The origin of the name 'Belize' is uncertain, but one theory claims that it could be a mispronunciation of the name of the Scottish buccaneer Peter Wallace who was thought to have settled in near the mouth of the Belize river. The spellings 'Valize' and 'Balize' both appear on historical Spanish maps. 7


America

Statue of Liberty While Columbus is credited with discovering the New World, his name does not feature as part of the name of 'America' that it was given. The source of this name has become a matter of dispute amongst historians over the years.
The prescribed version of the story that is often told in schools is that the country is named after Amerigo Vespucci - an explorer who wrote a series of letters claiming to have reached America over a year before Columbus did. A German mapmaker by the name of Martin Waldseemuller then happened upon Vespucci's letters in 1507 and labelled the New World 'America': the feminine form of Amerigo's first name.
However, historians have started to doubt this version of events. Some believe that these letters were forgeries, while others have proposed the idea that Vespucci wrote the documents dishonestly in a boldfaced attempt to take the credit for Columbus' discovery. Apparently Waldseemuller also had his reservations about the authenticity of the letters: he removed all references to 'America' in his later maps. But by this time other cartographers had started to use the name and 'America' had become the official name of the New World.
And these are not the only theories on the origin of the name of the land of the free. The name could also come from the 'Amerrique' tribe of Nicaragua that both Columbus and Vespucci had come into contact with. If this is the case, some commentators think that Vespucci modified his first name from 'Alberico' to 'Amerigo' so that it sounded closer to 'America' in a bid to ensure his name was remembered through the mists of time.
Equally Richard Amerike could also be the source of the name 'America'. Amerike was a wealthy 15th Century businessman who financed John Cabot's voyage across the Atlantic.
While it is impossible to know which is the correct source of the name 'America', it is certain that theories will continue to abound! 8


Barbados and Barbuda

Barbados, Dover Beach Both Barbados and Barbuda are derived from the Spanish meaning 'bearded'. It is thought that they were named either for the impressive beards of the native men that inhabited each island, or for the appearance of the figs trees found on the isles. Experts have concluded that Barbuda was named for its men and Barbados for its figs. 9

 

 

 

 

 


 

1 Ruy Platt, '5 Country Names That Are Stupid When You Know the Backstory', Cracked.com

2 Lonely Planet: Cameroon, http://www.lonelyplanet.com/cameroon/history

3 Ruy Platt, '5 Country Names That Are Stupid When You Know the Backstory', Cracked.com

4 'How 'Britain' got its name from 'Great Land of the Tattooed': The astonishing map that reveals the origins of place names', Daily Mail

5 History of Sierra Leone

6 Ruy Platt, '5 Country Names That Are Stupid When You Know the Backstory', Cracked.com

7 History of Belize

8 Ruy Platt, '5 Country Names That Are Stupid When You Know the Backstory', Cracked.com

9 Barbuda's History

 

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