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?