Where did the name America come from? Or San Francisco’s name? The naming of places is full of symbolic, poetic and political meaning.


The Continents

This are the six continents: America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Their naming dates back to the ancient world.

Ancient Greeks: Asia and Europe

Ancient Greece named the west bank of the Aegean Sea “Europe” and the east bank “Asia”. Because they lived on both sides of the Aegean sea and tried to differ both land areas from each other.

Ancient Romans: Africa

The Roman Empire added to the original pair Europe and Asia in the south of the Mediterranean Sea “Africa”.

Naming of the Portuguese explorers

The Europeans named the rest of the world much later, in fact not before the 15th century. The Portuguese explorers searched for a seaway to India, and gave during that search, new discovered islands and countries their names. So means “Madeira“ wood in Portuguese because on that island were large forests. The Portuguese also named many parts of the African coast: for example the “Cape of Good Hope” at Africa’s south tip.

America’s name

The “New World” was discovered by Columbus in 1492, but he didn’t name it. Americas name came from the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. He drew the new discovered part of the world based on reports of the Italian sailor Amerigo Vespucci. Other cartographers followed Waldseemüller’s map and so stayed America’s name until today.

New Holland to Australia

Australia was discovered by the Dutch in the 17th century and was first called New Holland. But it was renamed to Australia later, regarding to the Latin term “terra australis”, which means southern land.

Antarctica’s name

Finally got Antarctica its name in the 18th century. It was named as opposite of the Arctic. The Arctic is located under the constellation Great Bear (Ursa Major) and Little Bear (Ursa Minor). ἄρκτος (arktos) is the Greek word for bear and Ant-Arctica is therefore located at the opposite side of the earth.

America honors Columbus

Let’s have a closer look at the New World. Columbus didn’t name America, but many places in America where named after Columbus, to honor him:

  • The District of Columbia (Washington D.C.)
  • The Canadian Province British Columbia
  • The city Columbia in South Carolina and the cities Columbus in Ohio, Indiana, Nebraska and Georgia
  • And the country Colombia in South America, of course.

Saints lend cities their names

Some cities where also named after saints, just like:

  • San Francisco, named after St. Francis of Assisi
  • Santo Domingo in the Caribbean, named after St. Dominic
  • São Paulo in Brazil, named after St. Paul the Apostle

American Indian names in America

A big impact on names had also the American Indians. So means “Canada” in der language of the Iroquois “village” or “settlement”. “Ottawa”, the name of the Canadian capital means “trader” in the Algonquian language.

In the United States can names with native American background mainly be found in the center:

  • North- and South Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Mississippi

That is because the White used to fight Native Americans mainly between the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Appalachian Mountains in the east.

Independent Colonies rename their regions

Most colonies started to rename themselves or their regions, after they became independent. For instance renamed India the English names of their cities Bombay, Calcutta and Madras to Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Naming dispute: the “Sea of Japan”

There are also name disputes like in the case of Japan and South Korea. The term “Sea of Japan” was accepted by the International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) in 1928. South Korea says nobody asked them about their opinion, because they used to be a Japanese colony to that time. And so demands South Korea to name the ocean “East Sea”. Since 2005 lists Google Maps and Google Earth both terms: “Sea of Japan” and “East Sea”.