Novus Mundus Americanus
Updated: Jul 9
So, a friend of mine brought my attention to the place-name colonization going on in New York City right now — neighborhoods are getting new monikers to make them more palatable to gentrification — I guess if your college-age sons and daughters are moving in from out of town to a neighborhood like 'Prospect Park South' that sounds much more country-club palatable than ‘Flatbush’ like it was called when I was growing up. Similarly, I remember when Hell’s Kitchen became ‘Clinton’ during the 90’s and now Hell’s Kitchen is just a mythical cartoon world that lingers uncomfortably among the high rent lattés, smoothies & 'flex fleece' turtlenecks.
Which got me wondering about place-name colonization in general, and more specifically, if we’re gonna knock ol’ Cristobal Colon down off his pedestal we’re gonna have to re-evaluate a lot of things that he gave names to. Below is a list of the sovereign states in these Americas with a quick run down of where those names came from. There are more indigenous words there than I thought there would be, although still less than half. And some real surprises both ways: like, I thought Jamaica was named by the Brits for King James, but no, not at all, its a Taino word. And in reverse, I thought Brazil sounded like it would be from a native word, but no, its named after a tree that Europeans valued, a tree they were already calling ‘brazil-wood’ in trading with India, before they encountered the New World at all.
And I guess I’ll kick this off with a quick run down on ‘America,’ which I assume we all know is from the name of an Italian map-maker who was sent here on behalf of the Spanish crown and then again by the Portuguese. His name was Amerigo Vespucci, and he was generally accepted as the first European cartographer to assert that these new territories were not in the ‘Indies’ at all, but that they represented a whole new set of landmasses. Later scholars chose to name these continents the ‘Americas’ because that was catchier than the ‘Vesputias’? If you want to get all weirdly mythopoetic and break down Amerigo’s name a little further, it’s from a Germanic name, Amalrich (I knew a guy with a last name of Emmerich back in high school, that’s a related name); Amalrich actually translates as ‘work-ruler’, which does kind of work for describing two continents whose modern economies were pretty much entirely based on forced labor of enslaved persons, native and imported.
» Antigua & Barbuda — spanish: ‘ancient’ & ‘bearded’
» Argentina — latin through spanish: ’silvery’ or ‘silver bearing’
•» Bahamas — native, usually taken as a Taino word, though Spanish Bajamar ‘shallow water’ may have had an influence on its choice
» Barbados — spanish or portuguese, the islands were known as the ‘Bearded Ones’ these Islands and Barbuda were apparently named after the 'bearded fig' trees that lined the shores.
» Belize — apparently from english rendered through spanish: a colony was set up here by an english pirate named ‘Wallace’ which the spanish eventually pronounced as ‘Belize’
» Bolivia — spanish: after the wealthy, educated creole Simon Bolivar, hailed as the Liberator
» Brazil — portuguese: from a dye plant harvested on the Indian subcontinent called, in the english of the late middle ages - ‘brezel-wood’; a related species became an important South American export and the Portuguese called it ‘pau-brasil’.
•» Canada — native: ‘kanata’ = 'encampment', through Huron-Iroquois to french.
•» Chile — native, several suggested Mapuche & Quechua derivations, transmitted as an Incan place name to spanish.
» Colombia — spanish, from the name of italian navigator Cristoforo Colombo with the added suggestion of the biblical dove (colombo) discovering dry land.
» Costa Rica — spanish: ‘Rich Coast’
•» Cuba — native: unclear Taino derivation
» Dominica — spanish, after the latin: Columbus landed here on the ‘Lord’s Day’, a Sunday.
» Dominican Republic — spanish: the island and capital city were originally named for St Dominic and the monastic order who set up to missionize on the island.
» Ecuador — spanish: ‘Equator’
» El Salvador — spanish: ‘the Savior’
» Grenada — unclear, although most likely named after the spanish city of Granada
•» Guatemala — native, Nahuatl or Maya: Cuauhtēmallan means ‘place of many trees’
•» Guyana — native: ‘Guiana’ = place of water
•» Haiti — native: Hayti was the Taino name for the entire island known by europeans as Santo Domingo or Saint Domingue. Jean Jacques Dessalines is credited with restoring this native name to the newly independent nation.
» Honduras — spanish: Colombus named this region for the ‘deep waters’ off the coast
•» Jamaica — native: the island was known as Xaymaca in the Arawak language of the Taino inhabitants.
•» Mexico — native, the early Aztecs were called the Mexica and the Spanish used this name to refer regionally to northern American New Spain.
•» Nicaragua — native and maybe some spanish: generally accepted to either be the ‘water’ - agua - of an eponymous cheiftain ’Nicarao’ or of the southern reaches of the Nahua speaking peoples - ’nic-atl-nahuac’ = ‘here are the Nahua’
•» Panama — native, but the sources are lost.
•» Paraguay — native: Guarani ‘river of crowns’
•» Peru — native: officially rendered Piruw in Quechua and Aymara, said to be the name of a local ruler at the time of first spanish contact.
» St Kitts and Nevis — english and spanish: Colombus actually named a different island after his patron saint Christopher but a mapping error transferred the name; ‘Kitt’ was a common shortening for Christopher among english sailors at the time. Columbus named Nevis: ’Nuestra Señora de las Nieves’ = ‘Our Lady of the Snows.’ Anguilla, another one of the associated Antilles is spanish for ‘little eel’ and refers to its shape.
» St Lucia — latin through french: supposedly some french sailors were shipwrecked here on St Lucy’s Day.
» St Vincent and the Grenadines — spanish: Columbus named the one island on St Vincent’s feast day, the Grenadines like Grenada likely get their name from the Spanish city of Granada.
•» Suriname — possibly native, after an indigenous group called the Surinen, however the Surinam river there was named ‘Surryham’ by the English after the Earl of Surry…
» Trinidad & Tobago — spanish and native: Trinidad obviously was named for the ’Trinity’, the word Tobago is a spanish word used for tobacco likely derived or at least heavily influenced by a Taino word for the pipe used to smoke tobacco. The Spanish however seem to have already been using a word 'tabaco,' a word for stimulant herbs derived from the Arabic word tubbâq, so this one is difficult to assign.
» USA — italian, through latin: as I said earlier, America is named after the Italian mapmaker who was sent by Spain and again by Portugal to map their new holdings.
•» Uruguay — native, Guarani: perhaps ‘Bird River’
» Venezuela — spanish although there is legitimate dissent, supposedly Amerigo Vespucci while mapping the area named the region ’Little Venice’ after the houses on stilts that he saw there, however one of the crew members with him records an indigenous people called the Veneciuela.
So out of 35 political entities in these Americas, only 15 nations can show names grounded in the languages native to their soil.
My magnificent friend who set me on this thought-wave is Mz. Clarivel Ruiz, who is not only fresher-than-fresh, but check this out: