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Nearly Every Country on Earth Is Named After One of 4 Things

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It's not unusual to feel patriotic hearing the name of your home country. But what does that name actually mean? It might not be quite as regal as you'd expect. Still, how can you not love a translation like "bearded ones," "frizzy-haired," or "fish scale"? According to research compiled by Quartz from the toponymy reference book "Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names," basically every country on Earth is named after one of four things (though many origins are understandably murky). Do you know which category your country falls under?

1. Feature of the Land

About a quarter of the world's countries got their names from some description of the land.

  • Iceland was originally called Snæland, "Snow Land," but its current name comes from Norse settlers who renamed it to deter visitors.
  • Grenada was named by Spanish sailors who thought the landscape resembled the region around Granada in Spain.
  • Guatemala has an unclear origin, but it may come from the Aztec word "Quauhtemallan," meaning "land of many trees" or "land of the eagle." It may also be named after the word "Guhatezmalha," meaning "mountain of gushing water," which references the volcano of Agua.

2. A Directional Description

A slight twist on the previous category, this one is more geographically specific. According to Quartz, about 25 countries are named for their location.

  • Australia comes from the Greek name Terra Australis Incognita, meaning "unknown southern land," as a result of the Greeks imagining some faraway place in the southern hemisphere.
  • Ireland comes from Iar-en-land, "land in the west," from the Gaelic word iar, meaning "west."
  • Ecuador means "equator" in Spanish, due to the fact that the equator runs through the northern part of the country.

3. A Tribe Name

A whopping one-third of all countries got their current names from a group of people. According to Quartz, this category not only includes countries named after tribes, but also those named using attributes of their indigenous people. Here are a few examples in the tribe realm:

  • Albania takes its name from the Albanoi tribe.
  • Bangladesh means "land of the Bengalis." The Bengalis take their name from Banga, the chief of the Bang tribe.
  • France takes its name from a coalition of Germanic tribes, the Franks. The origin of the name "Frank" is unclear: it either comes from the word "franka," meaning fierce or brave, or from a personal name.
  • Hungary takes its name from "On Ogur," the name of a group of tribes, which means "ten arrows."

Here are some examples of countries named after a feature of their people:

  • Finland's English name means "land of the Finns," which may come from the Germanic finna, meaning "fish scale." This could reference a type of clothing worn by early Finnish tribes.
  • Macedonia comes from the ancient Greek root "mak," meaning "high" or "tall," possibly in reference to tall people living there.
  • Papua New Guinea got its name from the Malay word "papuah," meaning "frizzy-haired men."

4. An Important Person ... Who Is Most Likely a Man

Quartz tallied up another 25 countries that were named after significant historical men, with the exception of one named after a woman.

  • The United States of America gained the "America" part in honor of Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who is credited with recognizing that the continent explorers believed was Asia was really the "New World."
  • The Philippines are named after Spain's 16th-century King Philip II.
  • St. Kitts is a shortening of St. Christopher, which was chosen by Christopher Columbus after his patron saint.
  • St. Lucia is thought to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus, and named after Christian martyr St. Lucy, or Lucia of Syracuse.

The Stragglers

Then there are the rest. Outside of those four major categories are some leftovers that either have a unique origin story, or one that is utterly unknowable. Take, for example, the lunar names of Comoros, which means "moon" after the Arabic "al qamar"; and Mexico, which is likely a Spanish simplification of the Aztec city Metztlixihtlico, meaning "in the navel of the moon." Winning points for uniqueness is Bhutan, which calls itself Druk Yul, a phrase thought to mean "land of the thunder dragon." If you're curious about a country not mentioned here, you can learn more about the rest in this Oxford Dictionaries blog post.

History buff? Check out Will Durant's "Heroes of History: A Brief History of Civilization from Ancient Times to the Dawn of the Modern Age." The audiobook is free with a trial of Audible! We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

The Alternative Names Of 17 Countries

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Written by Joanie Faletto March 8, 2018

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