The Origin of Country Names


As allied forces take that little trouble-maker Muammar out of the room and explain to him that he needs to share his dictator hat and sword with the other kids now, I can’t help but wonder about the country’s name. Libya. Ironically, it’s pretty darn reminiscent of the word Liberty, ain’t it? Be kind of absurd if its origin had something to do with freedom and the right to self-determination, that sort of stuff.

Not being sure, I consulted my Libyan friends, who were unavailable on account of I don’t have any Libyan friends. So I checked Wikipedia, because it speaks Arabic and is in the know about these things, and it turns out that Libya did not derive its name from any notions of democracy, autonomy or free will.

No, that distinct honor is due Libya’s continental neighbor to the Southwest: Liberia. Take from the Latin Liber, meaning “free”, the country was so named because it served as a homeland for liberated African-American slaves.

I don’t think the country maps very well to most American’s notions of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (in their 2010 report, Transparency International called Liberia the world’s most corrupt country), but it does have a constitution and three equal branches of government! And there’s always the freedom to stage a revolution if you don’t like that annoyingly dominant executive branch.

But back to Libya. The evolution of that country name is a bit more complicated.

Apparently, the name originally derives from the Libu Berber tribesmen, who occupied the area in ancient times.

According to Wikipedia, the name Libya appears in Ancient Egyptian, Phoenician, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Arabic, and the modern European languages. The Ancient Egyptians mentioned many Libyan tribes, who were frequent foes of Egypt. Among the most well-known and important tribes was the Libu. Because there were no vowels in ancient Egyptian scripts, Libu was referred to as LBW, and the name appeared repeatedly in numerous pharaonic records afterward. It is, therefore, supposed that the origin of the name Libya was this Egyptian name for the ancient tribe Libu.


However, in snooping around, I discovered some other place name origins, the most interesting of which was Pakistan. According to Wikipedia:

The Cambridge student and Muslim nationalist Choudhary Rahmat Ali coined this name. He devised the word and first published it in 1933 in the pamphlet “Now or Never”. He constructed the name as an acronym of the different states/homelands/regions, which broke down into: P=Punjab, A=Afghania (Ali’s preferred name for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), K=Kashmir, S=Sindh and the suffix -stan from Balochistan, thus forming “Pakstan”. An “i” intruded later to ease pronunciation. The suffix -stan in Persian means “home of” and in Sanskrit means “place”.

Rahmat Ali later expanded upon this in his 1947 book Pakistan: the Fatherland of the Pak Nation. In that book he explains the acronym as follows: P=Punjab, A=Afghania, K=Kashmir, I=Indus Valley, S=Sindh, T=Turkharistan (roughly the modern central-Asian states), A=Afghanistan and N=BalochistaN.

The Persian word pāk, which means “pure”, adds another shade of meaning, with the full name thus meaning “land of the pure”.

Many Central and South Asian states and regions end with the element -stan, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Baluchistan, Kurdistan and Turkistan. This “Stan” is formed from the Iranian root sta, “to stand, stay,” and also means “place (where one stays), home, country.” The use of the name gradually spread during the successful campaign for the secession of a Muslim state from British India Empire.

Other slightly less yawn-inducing place name origins included:

From the word for “eel” in any of several Romance languages (Spanish: anguila; French: anguille; Italian: anguilla), due to its elongated shape.

From the Latin argentum, meaning “silver”. During the early Spanish colonization of the Americas, in the 16th century, Spanish Adelantados and Conquistadors named the Río de la Plata (“Silver River”) in the belief that it would lead them to the legendary Sierra de la Plata (“Silver Mountains”). In turn, the river lent its name to its surrondings, the platine region, which came to be known (through its Latinised femenine adjectival form) as Tierra Argentina (“Land of Silver”, “Silvery Land”), short La Argentina, since the early 17th century.

Originally from Latin australis which means “southern,” the word comes from terra australis incognita meaning “unknown southern land.”

From the word Kanata meaning “village” or “settlement” in the Saint-Lawrence Iroquoian language spoken by the inhabitants of Stadacona and the neighbouring region, in the 16th century, near present-day Quebec City.

Christmas Island (territory of Australia)
So named because Captain William Mynors discovered the island on Christmas Day in 1643.

Derived from the Old English name Engla land, literally translatable as “land of the Angles.”

The indigenous languages of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales refer to England as the “land of the Saxons” – for example, Irish Sasana, Scottish Sasann. Cornish – also a Celtic language – uses Pow Saws – literally “Saxon country”. Welsh uses Lloegr for England, though the word for English – Saesneg – is clearly derived from Saxon (as is Scottish Sasunnach, often Anglicized as Sassenach.)

French derivation of Francia, “Land of the Franks.” A frankon was a spear used by the early Franks, thus giving them their name. The term “Frank” later became associated with “free” as the Franks were the only truly freemen, since they subjugated the Romanized Gauls.

English name derived from the Old Norse name given by Eric the Red in 982 to attract settlers. Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenlandic name) means “lands of humans.”

Christopher Columbus named the country Honduras, Spanish for “depths,” referring to the deep waters off the northern coast.

From Celtic Lucilem “small” (cognate to English “little”) and Germanic burg, “castle,” thus lucilemburg: “little castle.”

After the Mexica branch of the Aztecs. The origin of the term Mexxica is uncertain. Some take it as the old Nahuatl word for the sun. Others say it derived from the name of the leader Mexitli. Others ascribe it to a type of weed that grows in Lake Texcoco. Leon Portilla suggests that it means “navel of the moon” from Nahuatl metztli (“moon”) and xictli (“navel”). Alternatively, it could mean “navel of the maguey” (Nahuatl metl). Another theory is that Mexico is most likely derived (via Spanish) from Nahuatl Mexihco, the name of the ancient Aztec capital.

From the Samoan Sa meaning “sacred,” and Moa meaning “center.” Samoan mythology relates that Samoa is the center of the universe. Some histories explain that the islands allegedly derive their name from that of a local chieftain, or from an indigenous word meaning “place of the moa”. The moa, a large bird now extinct, may have served as the islanders’ totem.

Phoenician/Punic “isle of hyraxes.” The Phoenician settlers found rabbits in abundance, and mistook them for hyraxes of Africa; thus they named the land in their Canaanite dialect. The Latin-speaking Romans adapted the name as Hispania. The Latin name was altered among the Romance languages, and entered English from Norman French Spagne.

A combination of the names of two states that merged to form this country, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. Tanganyika takes its name from the lake in the area. Zanzibar derives its name from the Zengi or Zengj, a local people whose own name means “black.”

The word Thai is not, as is commonly believed, derived from the word thai meaning “freedom” in the Thai language. It is, however, the name of an ethnic group from the central plains. With that in mind the locals seemed to have also accepted the alternative meaning and will verbally state that it means “Land of the free.” This might be due to language barriers and the avoidance of long difficult explanations.

And, though it may not come as a surprise to anyone…

United States
The term United States comes from the end of the Declaration of Independence: “We, therefore, the representatives of the united States of America, in general congress, assembled….” The preamble to the U.S. Constitution reiterated the phrase: “We the People of the United States….” The authors of these two documents probably used the phrase “united States” in place of a list of colonies/states because they remained uncertain (at the time of drafting) which colonies/states would sign off on the sentiments therein. The geographic term “America” specifies the states’ home on the American continent, and its origin is uncertain. However, the most popular theory is that it is derived from the Latinized version of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s name, Americus Vespucius, in its feminine form, America. The feminine form was chosen to match the ending of all other known continents at the time: Asia, Africa, and (as known in Latin) Europa.

Fun fact: Did you know that the official name for Mexico is the United Mexican States, Estados Unidos Mexicanos?


Do your favorite pet names date from 10, 100, or 1000 years ago?
Who could resist the opportunity to weigh in on a new pasta shape name?