Why is France called France? Or for that matter, is Chile named ‘oddly’ just because it is shaped like a chili? Well, we will try our best to solve such mysterious and their theories, both from the perspectives of etymology and history. So, without further ado, let us take a gander at ten such pretty interesting historical origins of country names from around the world.
*Please note – There are variant theories regarding the origins of the country names from around the world, given the complex issues of both their etymological values and historical analysis. Simply put, many of the origins discussed in this list should be viewed as PROBABILITIES and POSSIBILITIES, as opposed to CERTAINTIES.
1) Bolivia – named after a man
Very rare among country names, the word Bolivia comes from ‘Land of Bolivar’ (in New Latin) – a name which is given in honor of a man. As any history enthusiast worth his salt would tell you, that man was Simón Bolívar, a Venezuelan military leader regarded as one of the greatest generals who fought in the Spanish American wars of independence. After defeating the Spanish forces in South America, he was a key player in the foundation of the first union of independent nations in Latin America, known as Gran Colombia (initially composed of Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, western Guyana and northwest Brazil). Moreover, he also took part in further conquests of other South American nations including Ecuador, Peru and ‘Bolivia’ (which was originally a part of Upper Peru, but later named after him).
Incidentally, the names Gran Colombia and present-day Colombia, are given in honor of another famous man – Christopher Columbus (Italian – Cristoforo Colombo, Spanish – Cristóbal Colón). To that end, the name Columbia means ‘Land of Columbus’, and it was officially adopted in the year in 1863. And, we stretch our scope of countries named after men, United States of America also belongs to the exclusive group, with ‘America’ probably derived from the name of Italian explorer and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci (or Americus Vespucius in Latin).
2) Chile – certainly NOT derived from the chili pepper
Chile surely contributes to one of the lingering misconceptions about country names, with popular notions equating it with the chili pepper due to the nation’s unique geographical shape. However, from the credible perspective, unfortunately, researchers are still not sure about the origin of the name Chile (though the chili pepper ‘connection’ can be certainly be discarded). To that end, one of the hypothesis relates to how the Incas called this land ‘Chili‘ by a corruption of the name of a Picunche tribal chief called Tili. The main valley of the Aconcagua in Chile is also similar in terms of the landscape to the Casma Valley in Peru which has a town named Chili – thus alluding to a second theory.
The third theory relates to the native Mapuche word chilli, which roughly translates to ‘where the land ends’. Interestingly, the very term chilli might have had its origin in the onomatopoeic cheele-cheele, which might have been the imitation (done by Mapuche tribes) of the warble of the local Trile bird. In any case, the concoction very country name Chile is originally ascribed to Diego de Almagro (the leader of a Spanish expedition to South America in 16th century AD), who christened it after the Mapocho valley.
3) China – probably named from an ancient Indian text
As is often the case with the contrasting influences of native and popular country names, the word China itself is not actually Chinese in origin. Rather it was probably derived from Persian Chīn, which is turned was passed down from the Indo-European Sanskrit word Cīna. To that end, the mention of the land of Cīna is mentioned in the famed Arthashastra, an ancient Indian treatise penned by the great Chanakya during Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya’s reign in early 3rd century BC. He also goes on to describe how this eastern realm had achieved expertise in producing woven clothes and silk. Now, it is interesting to note that this theory (with its credible hypotheses) goes against the traditional theory of China being derived from Qin, since this dynasty started after the timeline of Chandragupta’s reign.
As for the common Chinese name of the country, one word sticks out, and it pertains to Zhōngguó. Sometimes used in official capacities (and sometimes used in colloquial scopes), the term Zhōngguó is more than 2,500 years old, while it roughly translates to ‘middle states’. This might have had a cultural allusion, with a group of settled central provinces and their inhabitants separating themselves from the surrounding ‘barbarians’ (like the Huaxia tribes).
4) France – possibly named after a weapon
One of the simple country names, the term ‘France’ comes from Latin Francia, and it was originally applied to the entirety of the Frankish Empire of the early middle ages – with Francia corresponding to the ‘land of Franks’. Now the Franks themselves were a group of Germanic tribal people who conquered the region of northern Gaul (still under the Romano-Celtic influence) by circa 500 AD. And while Franks generally meant ‘free men’, the etymological origin of their tribe name perhaps came from the old Germanic word frankon – which meant a javelin or a lance.
It is also interesting to know that the Franks were historically known for using a type of throwing ax known as Francisca, and it might have been related to the aforementioned javelin-type weapon. On the other hand, it can also be a case of vice versa, where the weapon’s name was derived from the original name of the tribe. And, since we brought up historicity, the denoting of the scope of ‘free men’ with Franks was possibly due to their tax-exempt status in their newly conquered territory of Gaul.
5) Mexico – possibly named after the ‘navel of the moon’
The very term Mēxihco in Nahuatl language pertains to the heartland of the Aztec Empire, with its meaning roughly translating to ‘place of the Mexica’ (Mexica denoting the Aztecs). Now from the perspective of etymology, Mēxihco might have been derived from Mextli or Mēxihtli, a rather obscure name for the Aztec god of war Huitzilopochtli. That, in turn, would make Mēxihco a ‘place where Huitzilopochtli resides’.
But we decide to go to the poetic side of affairs in country names, Mēxihco can also relate to the portmanteau of the Nahuatl words for Moon (Mētztli) and navel (xīctli). In that regard, Mexico would mean – ‘place at the center of the Moon’, which might have alluded to the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan’s unique position in the middle of the Lake Texcoco. This hypothesis does have some credibility since the Lake Texcoco and its patchwork of water bodies resembled the shape of a rabbit that was identified with the Moon (as a form of pareidolia) by the inhabitants of the middle ages.
6) Morocco – probably named after the ‘land of God’
An exotic term among country names, the English word ‘Morocco’ is derived from its Spanish and Portuguese variants Marruecos and Marrocos respectively. These names, in turn, originate from Marrakesh’ – a Medieval Latin term for the capital city of both Almoravid dynasty and Almohad Caliphate from the middle ages. And quite fascinatingly, the word ‘Marrakesh’ itself comes from the Berber word-combination Mur N’Akush that means ‘land of God’.
As for the full Arabic name of Morocco, the entire term corresponds to al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah, which roughly means the ‘Kingdom of the West’. In that regard, Maghrib literally pertains to the ‘West’, with gharaba meaning ‘(the sun) has set’.
7) Russia – probably named after a group of ‘Vikings’
Yes, Vikings also played their part in the scope of country names. To that end, the word ‘Russia‘ comes from Russi in Medieval Latin – which denoted the people of the land. This, in turn, is derived from the renowned Rus – a state from the early middle ages (mostly) based in modern-day west Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was mainly inhabited by Eastern Slavs and ruled by a Scandinavian minority (that gradually intermixed with the local population). As a matter of fact, the ruling and conquering mercantile class was also called Rus (Greek Rhos and Arabic Rus), and they represented the so-called Varangians, the Greek term for Vikings.
In that regard, the very term ‘Rus’ might have similar roots to that of Ruotsi – the Finnish name for Sweden; and was probably derived from Old Norse Roþrslandi or ‘the land of rowing’. This finally stems from Old Norse roðr or ‘steering oars’.
8) Sierra Leone – probably named after ‘roaring’ mountains
Considered among the grander country names, Sierra Leone literally translates to ‘lion mountains’ (as opposed to ‘mountain lions’) and is directly derived from Sierra Leona, the Spanish version of the Portuguese Serra Leoa. This name was given by Pedro de Sintra, a Portuguese explorer who was seemingly inspired by the mountains of the country in 1462 AD while sailing by the West African coast.
Now, it still remains a mystery as to why he called these mountains Serra Leoa. Theories range from how these mountain ranges resembled the teeth of lions to how they look like sleeping lions. However, the more interesting hypothesis relates to how the thunders in the mountainsides sounded much like the roaring of the lions. Such natural phenomenon could surely make a grand impression upon the traveler of the day.
9) Spain – possibly named after rabbits
Another one of the elegant-sounding country names, the very term ‘Spain‘ is derived from Anglo-French Espayne, which in turn is derived from Hispania (at least that’s what the Romans called the land). But the origins of this Roman name is still uncertain due to the prevalence of inadequate pieces of evidence. For example, according to a hypothesis put forth by Renaissance scholar Antonio de Nebrija, the term Hispania came from the Iberian word Hispalis, which meant the ‘city of the western world’. Other theories pertain to the rather ‘poetic’ side of affairs, with Hispania being possibly derived from the Greek Hesperia ultima or the ‘land of the setting sun’ – given its western-most geographical location in the known old world.
But if we opt for the most interesting theory among many, it would surely relate to the Phoenician (or Punic cognate of Hebrew) term ‘I-Shpania‘, which might have roughly meant the ‘isle of hyraxes’ or even ‘land of rabbits’. This may have been due to the abundance of rabbits in the land, which could have been mistaken as hyraxes from Africa. Now from extant evidence, archaeologists have found Roman coins (from Hadrian’s reign) depicting a female figure with a rabbit at her feet. This is also mirrored by Strabo, who called Spain the ‘land of rabbits’.
10) Honorable Mention: Turkey – derived from Turks, not your general Thanksgiving dish
The very origin of the country name Turkey is simply based on the ethnonym Türk (pertaining to the Turkic people, referred to as Turcae in Roman sources and Tujue in Chinese sources). To that end, the first recorded use of the very word Türk (or Türük) comes from the 8th century AD inscriptions of the Göktürks, written in an Old Turkic script. As for the Anglicized name ‘Turkey’, it is derived from the Medieval Latin term Turchia and probably was used for the first time in 14th century AD.
Interestingly, Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus mentioned the term Tourkia in his work De Administrando Imperio (from the 10th century AD); though in this case, it might have related to the Magyars, as opposed to Turks as we know them.
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