Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Origin of Country Names

Did you know that Australia got its name from the Latin australis' meaning 'southern', or that Spain derives its name from a small rodent ('España' coming from 'I-Shpania', meaning "island of hyraxes")?

Thanks to a new interactive map from Le Monde you can now discover the origin of every country's name in the world. If you hover over a country on the map in the article Discover the origin of all the country names you can find out the etymology of that country's name (the article is in French so the etymology is of the French word for each country).

Le Monde is also awarded bonus points for using a Buckminster-Fuller (Dymaxion) projection for its interactive map.

Le Monde's article includes an analysis of the different types of classifications Le Monde has discovered in country names. It has found that country names can be divided into four main categories: country names that derive from a geographical feature (a lake, river etc), those named after a group of people, those named after an individual person (a discoverer, sovereign etc), and countries that are named for their geographical location (east, west, south, north etc)

America falls into the 'individual person' category having derived its name from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Russia is an example of a country that derived its name from a group of people (the Rus). Nigeria is an example of a country named for a geographical feature (the Niger river). China belongs to the smallest category (countries named for their geographical location). The name China means central land ("Zhongguo" (中国) literally translates to 'Middle Kingdom' or 'Central State).

Via: Data Vis Dispatch

Of course Le Monde's etymology of country names mainly uses the French names for each country. If you want an English version then you might like my own Planet Dirt interactive map. 

A few years ago I used Wikipedia's List of Country-Name Etymologies to create this literal atlas of the world (if you have any problems with the translated names on the map you should therefore complain to Wikipedia not me). I do have to admit that the translation of the word 'Earth' to 'Planet Dirt' is all mine. 

Like Le Monde, when I made my map I discovered four main categories or types of country name. The categories I detected however were slightly different in nature. I also spotted that many countries were named for geographical features and for groups of people. However I also decided that there were many countries which had names derived from religion and other countries that took their names from animals.

My four categories were:

Natural Features

Many countries around the world take their name from geographical or topographical features. These include Bahrain (Two Seas), Montserrat (Serrated Mountain), Chad (Lake), Croatia (Mountain People), Netherlands (Lowlands), Iceland (Land of Ice), Haiti (Mountainous Land) and Montenegro (Black Mountain).


We all like to believe that we are God's chosen people. For many countries this goes as far as believing you live in God's chosen country. Among the countries which have some kind of religious related name are Madagascar (Holy Land), Morocco (Land of God), Sri Lanka (Holy Island) Azerbaijan (Protected by Holy Fire), Djibouti (Land of the Moon God) and Uganda (Brothers & Sisters of God).


Around the world many countries are named after the people who live there (or who once lived there). In Europe we have England (Land of the Angles), France (Land of the Franks), Belgium (Land of the Belgae) and Switzerland (Land of the Swiss). In Africa we have Mauritania (Land of the Moors), Libya (Land of the Libu) and Senegal (Land of the Zenega). Elsewhere we have India (Land of Indus) and Russia (Land of the Rus).


Animals are also a common source for country names. Of these we have Spain (Island of Rabbits), Nepal (Those Who Domesticate Cattle), Somalia (Cattle Herders), Cameroon (Shrimp), Guadeloupe (Valley of the Wolf), Sierra Leone (Lion Mountain) and Mali (hippopotamus)

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