How Countries Got Their Names

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Taiwan, Canada, Germany – where did these names come from? It seems strange that once upon a time, nowhere had a name. How did these names come to exist, and who chose them?


Before People


Long ago, there were no humans or languages – so nothing was named: not the sea or the sky, neither the beaches nor the mountains. As humans evolved we developed cultures and languages. And we started naming things. How naming of places started is a complete mystery – nobody knows for sure.


Naming is as old as language itself, and it’s likely that places were named in the first instance by attributes of the land: the place with the trees, on the hill or with all the animals. And over time, these names were twisted, contorted, developed, translated and misconstrued. Lands were conquered, handed over and repopulated.


It took the entirety of human history for the names we have today to emerge. But some names, with a little prying, do reveal their origins.


Interesting Names and Their Translations


Most of the time, a country got its English name like this: settlers or traders arrive and either name it after the tribe they encounter or use the name the tribe already have for it.


If the new visitors have conquest on their minds, they’ll name a newly discovered land after their leader, the local geography or something reminiscent of their own land.


Some are named for people – some are even named by mistake.


St Lucia


This is one of the only examples of a country named after a woman – St Lucy. Columbus named several of the Caribbean islands he found after saints he was fond of. St Kitts is named for Saint Christopher, his own namesake.




“Kanata” means village. It was mistakenly assumed to be the name of the country by 16th century explorer Jacques Cartier, when he encountered the native people.




Taiwan has been known by many names, but its official name is Republic of China. It’s seldom called Republic of China in practice. In England, it was called Formosa until the early 20th century – “beautiful island”, the name given to it by Portuguese sailors in the 1500s.


Common Themes


There’s a fascinating trend in country names – countries are almost always named after one of four things: a directional description of the country, a feature of the land, a tribe name or an important person, usually male.


Of course, not every country has the same name in every language – for example, what we call Germany is natively called Deutschland. So to get to the true origin of a name, you have to translate it first – but that can be tricky. It can lead you tumbling down a rabbit hole of tribe names, fringe countries and distinct dialects!


Why Does Germany Have so Many Names?


Germany is an outlier: its name translates very differently from one language to another.


The English language gets Germany from Germania – a Roman Latin name that is almost certainly a loanword from Gaelic. The Celts had a presence in much of Europe before Roman settlement, and so they’d have named the tribes they encountered long before Romans had the chance to.


But Deutschland as it’s known natively today, wasn’t even a country until the late 19th century.


The distinct nations of Prussia, Bavaria and surrounding principalities were united in 1871 as Deutschland – “land of the people” in Old High German. By that time, the region had been known by its English name of Germany/Germania for so long that it had stuck – and many other nations named it similarly.


The name a language gives to Germany seems to depend on which Germanic tribe was encountered first. But regardless of which tribe it was named after, it still adheres to the general rule – being named after one of four things.


It is however one of those rare cases where a country’s name for itself is younger than the names that other countries call it.


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