Thursday, March 19, 2009

Where Did All These Place Names Come From?

Once upon a time I was a high school student, who chose as her foreign language the fine and elegant French. Because these courses are all about being practical and conversational, I focused on learning numbers, names of random household objects, days of the week, and names of countries. These are the intriguing parts of language, probably the least relevant to the distinctions among the tongues. Days of the week, months of the year, and names of places are some of the most fascinating studies in history and myth, and the migrating peoples. Here in the United States, we call the “Fatherland,” that great military empire of the 19th and 20th centuries, boasting Kaisers and Fuhrers, Germany. The Germans themselves call their empire Deutschland. And upon learning French, I discovered that the passionately peaceful peasants (except during anarchic revolutions) named Germany, Allemagne.

Usually my little brain is creatively making associations and speculations about where words came from, but here I was stuck. Names and titles are interesting things, because they are only rarely required to have a relationship to definitions. For example, in studying the etymologies of country names, I came across several (20th century inventions, mostly) whose names meant “land of the free.” Others seem arbitrary – or even derogatory, bestowed on the people by hostile neighbors.

Join me, then, as we briefly navigate the history of the world as told by the naming of nations. Let’s begin our tour with Germany.

German is first attested in writings of Julias Caesar, probably the name of an individual tribe. Speculation on the roots of the word range from a Celtic word for “to shout” or the Germanic gar, meaning “spear.” Part of the problem is that Germany is an empire, a collection of tribes, so that there is wide selection of names that accurately apply to large swaths of the German countryside. English (which has had its own fair share of invading languages and kings) formerly used the French (Allemagne, “land of all the men” i.e. “our many tribes” used to denote foreigners – compare to the words alien and else.) and the German (Deutschland – “land of the people”) to refer to the country. I cannot find out when we started calling the land Germany almost universally, but neither can I discover when the Deutschland came into use, or Allemagne. Since they all come from ancient tribal names, none is more correct than the other – except that we might want to give precedence to what people choose to call themselves.

Dutch, whose name is obviously of the same root as Deutschland, is first recorded in official correspondence from Charlemagne’s reign, when it referred to Germans in general. It means “belonging to the people” from the root þeod “people, race, nation,” actually sharing a root with another word for Germans, Teutonic (Proto-Indo-European *teuta- “people” or in Old Prussian, tauto “country”).

Interestingly enough, the Polish word for Germany is Nemetsy/Niemcy which means “land of the mute.” Mute is the way some people described others who couldn’t speak the common language. It’s rather ethnocentric, but goes to illustrate what I was saying about getting a name from a neighbor. (It has been suggested that the word barbarian, baby, babble, and infant all come from that same general idea: they’re talking, but we can’t understand them. And this whole language problem is indivisible from that Biblical account of Babel. Imagine a decade or so after the tower project was interrupted by the confusion of languages. One forcibly-separated tribe runs into another with a speech frustratingly meaningless to the first, and they both look at each other and recite a place name, Babel. That’s the word for it. History explains; this is why. How often do you get why’s in these strange questions of etymology?)

Welsh is another name for a country, granted by its Saxon (another occasional word for Germany or Germans) neighbors. It was used long ago to mean “Celtic” or simply “foreign.” G’s and W’s are interchangeable due to accents and evolution of languages, so Welsh is actually quite close to Gael and Gaul. The Welsh have their own name for themselves – or at least they did back when people cared about languages and less about this up and coming global society. Cymru is that little country on the British Isles, meaning “compatriots.” Cambria and Cumberland are derived from this name. The Welsh were kinder to the Germanic invaders, and generally referred to them by their own name, Saxon (adapted to sound Gaelic). Or this might have been a bitter term of respect, since the tribe seems to have been named for swords, Saxon having the same root (most likely) as saw. Saxon is a word that shows up almost everywhere, including in those English counties Essex, Sussex, and the Gaelic term for a foreign ruler, Sassenach.

Another pretty word referring to the Gaels is Brythons. Great Britain and British are the common forms of this name today. There is a dialect called Breton (which is really beautiful if you ever get to hear it spoken or sung). Before Christ, Greek records describe the peoples with the term Prittanoi, “tattooed people.” It only came into official use as a name for England when King James I (who was definitely the Scottish King, and got the British crown after Elizabeth was done with it by reason of being a distant cousin of that childless queen – and if you think how we got names of countries is complicated, take a look at the ancestry of the famous King James!) called his country that at his coronation. It was made official 100 years later when Scotland (more properly British by racial descent) was joined to England.

Scotland’s name is so old that we aren’t sure what it means. The English called the inhabitants of Ireland Scottas, and that was an idea they picked up from the Romans (Latin). Speculation born purely out of the similar sound says that the term may have come from an Irish insult, “a term of scorn,” scuit. But I have no idea what that word means. In Gaelic Scotland is Alba, from the Indo-European for “white,” supposedly referring to the white chalk around Dover or some association with mountains (similarity to Alps). In Latin Scotland was also called Caledonia, which is “good waters” in Greek. (Apparently the Greeks and Romans hung out a little more than the Greeks and the Persians, despite each being successive empires of the known world.)

I’ve mentioned the Irish a couple times. Their etymology is pretty simple. It comes from Erin, a word referring to fertility of land, and animals and people. Whether the goddess Eire got her name from this word or vice versa, she was the goddess of fertility in the pagan mythology of the Gaels.

Another country whose name is most likely from a god is Egypt, which supposedly means “temple of the soul of Ptah” (this is Egyptian, and was their name for the city of Memphis), although some say it comes from the Greek, “land below the Aegean sea” which in its Latin form is Aegyptus. In the Bible the country is named for its founder, Mizraim, who was one of the sons of Ham, the son of Noah. In Hebrew the word has meaning, “straits or narrow places,” referring to the distribution of civilization along the Nile. Other Arabic definitions of this word mean “city” or “to settle or found.” In Coptic, Egypt is Kême “black land” describing the mud after summer floods contrasted with the “red land” of the desert. (You gotta hear this. Desert is from the Ancient Egyptian, dsrt. They should know.)

Ethiopia is a word originally Greek, aithein “to burn” and ops “face.” It was talking about the skin color of the inhabitants. (However, some sources attribute the name to another descendant of Noah, Ityopp’is, who is supposedly a son of Cush – I don’t know which one from Gen. 10:7 is meant. But in the Bible, Cush is the name for Ethiopia). A few hundred years ago, Ethiopia was Abyssinia, derived from the Arabic, meaning “mixed.” There was actually a mixture of ethnic groups inhabiting that country.

Other biblical places and their name origins are:

Jordan, named for the river, “descend” of Hebrew and Canaanite origin.

Iran means “land of the Aryans” or “land of the free.” Arya comes from the Proto-Indo-European with a definition of “noble, free.” In the Bible it is called Persia, which has the same root as paradise, “garden.”

Iraq means “between the rivers.” In the Bible it was Babylon “gate of the gods” in usage, but derived from Babel.

Palestine is the Roman name for Israel, literally “land of the Philistines,” and intended as a jibe at the Jews. Philistine itself is from a Semitic root meaning “invader.” The Philistines were Phoenician high-tech seafarers who settled on the coast and oppressed Israel living in the mainland.

Spain actually gets its name from the Phoenicians as well, since they had quite the colony and port in Spain. The Phoenicians called it “isle of hyraxes,” mistaking the abundant hares for the African hyraxes. The word has changed very little since then. It began as Î-šəpānîm, was modified to Hispania for Latin, and comes to us today via the French Spagne as Spain.

France is named for a weapon, and actually for a Germanic tribe (who else – named for a weapon?), the Franks. A frankon was a spear. Frank became associated with freedom when they ruled over the Gauls. By contrast, then, to the Gauls, who were essentially slaves, the Franks were free. Interesting, however, that the people owning and earning the name are not at all the majority of the people traditionally associated with the country of France. Neither, for that matter, is France typically associated with freedom or weapons.

Italy means “son of a bull god.” And this one you just can’t skip. Vatican City comes from a word meaning “to prophesy,” but in a completely pagan way. The city is built on an old street that used to host fortune tellers and sooth-sayers (obviously before the Christianization of Rome).

Finally, three more interesting names. One is Siam, which got its name from Myanmar/Burma, its neighbor. Siam means “land of Gold.” Siam was changed to Thailand in the first half of the 20th century. Pakistan is the other interesting name. Like the demographics of the country itself, the name is a compilation, an acronym made up by Choudhary Rahmat Ali in 1934 well before the region became a country in 1956. It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Balochistan."

You may have noticed that Pakistan has occasional identity crises, and suffers from severe division. The USA is in a similar situation, but we have heretofore handled our cultural differences considerably better than Pakistan (our primary blemish being the Civil War over 100 years ago).

“Out of the many, one” is a hard thing to achieve. In honor of the attempt, I close with the much more widely known etymology of the United States of America. United and States being self-evident, America is the feminine form of Amerigo, the name of a conceited cartographer who made made his name so prominent on his maps that the people, knowing no better, assumed the new world was named Amerigo. And so it is.

Thank you to the following resources, from which I got almost all of this information:

God’s Word for Windows

To God be all glory.

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