If you tell your friends you’re planning a visit to Vitalia, they’ll probably think you’re heading to some new spa for a week of pampering. Or you might suggest going to Hellas, but you probably won’t get anyone volunteering to join you.
The ancient names of present-day countries such as Italy and Greece tell us much about their history, legends, and mythology. Many originated long ago which explains conflicting opinions about their beginnings. We explored the names we use in English, but in other languages the country names often sound quite different. Like contemporary languages, many names were based on Latin and Greek.
Italy, for example, was once called Vitalia, meaning “land of cattle,” because its southern area was rich in grazing herds. With Greek colonization and influence, the initial letter was dropped and the area became known as Italoi. When you order vitello in an Italian restaurant, the name refers to a young calf, or veal, reminiscent of the country’s early name.
The ancient name of Greece was Hellas or Ellada, and it is still known as the Hellenic Republic. The Romans created the name Graecia, a Latin adaptation of a Greek word. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, stories of creation myths, referred to the only survivors of a flood who began repopulation by tossing stones that turned into humans. The first one became their son, Hellen, perhaps the source of the Hellenic terminology.
France was named for the Franks, Germanic tribes that invaded the region after the fall of the Roman Empire. Once referred to as Gaul, the area’s name became Francia, Latin for “land of the Franks.” It is also said to come from the old German word franca, meaning fierce or brave. The French people are sometimes referred to as Gallic, based on the region’s early name.
Germany was called Germania by the ancient Romans, but the origin of the word is not clear. One suggestion is that it came from the Celtic gair, meaning neighbor. Germans call their own country Deutschland, and in Spain, Germany is called Alemania.
In ancient times, the island country of Malta was known for honey and its unique species of bees. It was called Melitta or Melite by the Greeks based on their word for honey (meli). Similarly, the Latin word for honey is mel, leading to such words as mellifluous, meaning sweet flowing or honeyed, as in a pleasant voice.
Greek and Latin even influenced the name of India, meaning “the country of the River Indus.” The name of the river probably came from the Sanskrit word sindhu meaning “the sea.”
Portugal got its name from the Latin portus cale or warm harbor, referring to a Roman settlement at the mouth of the River Duoro.
Other countries have also been named for their locations or terrain. Albania was named by the Albanoi tribe which took its name from the Indo-European word alb meaning mountain or hill.
Similarly, Andorra got its name from a local Navarrene word, andurrial, which means “shrub-covered land.”
Montenegro literally means “black mountain,” which may refer to the dark appearance of Mt. Lovcen and its surrounding areas.
Bahrain, with seas on its east and west coasts, got its name from the Arabic term al-bahrayn meaning two seas.
The name Bahamas is believed to have come from the Spanish words baja mar, meaning “shallow sea.”
Honduras received its name from the Spanish word hondura, “deep water,” also based on the depth of the coastal waters surrounding the islands.
Explorers gave names to the lands they discovered, and Christopher Columbus is credited with naming quite a few. He named the island of Antigua after The Church of Santa Maria de la Antigua in Seville, Spain.
In honor of Saint Christopher, guardian of sailors and travelers, Columbus named St. Kitts, an abbreviation for the saint’s name.
Thinking he might find gold there, Columbus named Costa Rica, Spanish for “rich coast.”
The name of Nevis came from the Spanish word for snow, nieve, when Columbus thought the clouds over Nevis Peak resembled snow.
The name America commemorates the 15th-century Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who landed in what is now South America and Central America while sailing under the flags of Spain and Portugal. He was first honored when his name was used for Brazil. Later, the famous mapmaker Mercator marked the name America on both the northern and southern continents. When the 13 original states joined together in 1776, our country became the United States of America. And as they say, the rest is history.