How does a country come up with its name?
Have you ever wondered where a country’s name comes from? Some, like Ecuador – named after the Equator which bisects it – link to their geography. Others, named by those who rediscovered them, focus on history – Viscount Jean Moreau de Sechelles was France’s Finance Minister at the time and is now immortalised in the Indian Ocean. For still more, the origin of their name is disputed or unknown. Here are the stories of how five of the world’s countries got their names.
Pakistan is a relatively new nation and its name is an artificial creation. Yes, Pakistan is actually an acronym, combining some of the most important Muslim regions. The first to use it was Choudhry Rhamat Ali, long before Pakistan was partitioned from India. He referred to Pakstan (no i) in a pamphlet, combining letters from the five northernmost regions of the British colony – Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh and Baluchistan (the latter providing the -tan suffix). The extra i was added later to make the name easier to pronounce.
The word “argentine” means “resembling silver” and thus Argentina is the land of the silver. When the Spanish conquistadors first set eyes on the Río de la Plata in the 16th century, some accounts refer to the silvery colour of the water in the sunshine. More likely, the name comes from the gifts of silver given to members of Juan Díaz de Solís’ expedition. They were also told of a mythological mountain, rich in silver. They named it Sierra de la Plata, but it is more likely to have been Cerro Rico de Potosí, one of the largest silver mines found in modern day Bolivia.
Prior to independence, Tuvalu was called the Ellice Islands and governed by Britain first as a protectorate and later as a colony, in partnership with the Gilbert Islands (now known as Kiribati). But by the 1970s there was a mood for change and the majority of Ellice Islanders wanted to go it alone. They got their wish, becoming a separate British dependent territory in 1975 with full independence coming three years later. The country’s fresh start warranted a new name: Tuvalu. It means “eight standing together”. Actually there are nine island groups but one is so close to sea level they probably classed it as sitting down. Global warming is not going to be good news in these parts.
Another name change though this time long after independence – the country used to go by the unoriginal moniker of Upper Volta. In 1984, the then president Thomas Sankara chose Burkina Faso, which translates as the “land of honest men”. Given that Sankara seized power in a revolutionary coup, not exactly the most honest way of filling those shoes, the name was somewhat aspirational. Sankara himself was assassinated in a coup three years later.
Fans of the crappy 1980s TV series Dynasty will be familiar with Moldavia but few at the time realised it was a real place, a historic region now split between Romania and Moldova. Moldova takes its name from the river that actually flows in the Romanian half. Several theories exist as to how it got its name, the best of which is a legendary tale. Dragos Voda, a Maramures nobleman was hunting with his pet dog. The dog, Molda, chased a bison into the river and drowned. The heartbroken Voda ordered that from that moment on, the waterway was to be called the Moldova River.
Want to add to the list? Why not post the meaning of your country’s name in the comments?
Some great facts. My favourite story about place names is about Venezuela which is said to have originated from the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci who led a 1499 naval expedition along the north western coast of South America. When he landed he saw people living in houses on stilts and using boats that were shaped like gondolas so they named it Venezuela, which meant ‘Little Venice’.
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September 25, 2017 at 5:57 am
I read about that. They must have gone to a different part of Venezuela to me, that’s for sure.
September 25, 2017 at 6:03 am
(As a frog born in Pakistan of all places, may I add that some say Pakistan means Land of the Pure… Never really checked that) (A bit like Sankara’s Burkina)
Nice blog. I will be back.
September 26, 2017 at 7:01 pm
Thanks Brian, I’ll check out your blog soon too.
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September 26, 2017 at 7:04 pm
Any time. The light is always on. And the chimney lit. There’s probably a cat dozing on a leather armchair somewhere…
September 26, 2017 at 10:10 pm
It’s interesting to see how some of these places got their names. We traveled through Asia a bit and when I’d read up on a new country, I’d always search for at least a mention of how they got their name. Thanks for sharing this. I found Burkina Faso’s name origins to be somewhat reminiscent of Vietnam, though just in changing Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City after the war. Anyway, just thought I’d share. Thanks again!
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October 4, 2017 at 3:53 pm
Yes it’s quite addictive tracing name after name!
October 4, 2017 at 4:34 pm