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How America Got Its Name

Some time in elementary school, I guess, one of my teachers told the story that went something like this:

A fellow named Amerigo Vespucci drew a map of the known world which included the newly discovered continents of the New World. Someone began referring to those new continents as Amerigo's land, and the Latinized version of his name caught on.

Some variation of that story was pretty much all I remember from my school history classes, and while it's not exactly wrong, the full tale is much richer and a lot more interesting. As it happens, I've been rereading George R. Stewart's wonderful 1975 book Names On the Globe, and he devotes a good chunk of a chapter to relating that story. (Sadly the book is long since out of print, but used copies are still readily available.)

I had thought I could retell the tale, but Stewart does such a great job, and since his book is out of print, I've decided to publish his version here:

With such reasonable possibilities eliminated, anyone would hesitate to advance an altogether fantastic one—that is, that the magnificent and world-famous name America came into existence from the brainstorm of a German pedant who had never crossed the ocean, and probably had never even seen it. Yet the written record is so conclusive that scholars have had no recourse but to reject all the reasonable ideas and to accept the fantastic one.

We know little enough about him. He was, in 1490, a student at the University of Freiburg, and he lived on into the next century. Obviously he would have studied Latin, and apparently he was an enthusiast for the Greek studies, which were popular at the time. If there is a single fact of which we can be certain, it is that he was one of those individuals under the fascination of names. We can see as much in his manipulation of his own name, which was Martin Waldseemüller, the family-name to be translated as “forest-lake-miller.” He set out to put this into Greek, as some scholars did in those times. The result must have been something like the repugnant and impractical hyl-lakko-mylo-os. But, for his own ends, he ingeniously manipulated this monstrosity, and, as the custom was, Latinized it. He got then, finally, Hylacomylus. Obviously, such a man is not to be trusted with a name.

At this point we must turn to that other character of this fantasy, a Florentine who usually spelled his name America Vespucci—Latinized as Americus (or Albericus) Vesputius. He was what has been called, somewhat enigmatically, a “controversial” figure, which means, in this case, that his stories of voyages across the Atlantic have been assailed as fabrications, especially by the highly respected early Spanish historians Las Casas and Herrera. Later investigators, however, have defended him. On the whole, we can conclude that he had really voyaged to what was the northeastern coast of South America. As a result, he took the position, as more and more people were beginning to do, that Columbus was wrong; that this was not India, but a new continent.

 Names On the Globe by George R. Stewart

Names On the Globe by George R. Stewart

In 1503 or the following year he published, under the name Albericus Vesputius, a Latin pamphlet, its title Mundus Novus. In it he stated his belief about those regions—“They may be called a New World, for there was no knowledge of them among our ancestors, and it is a wholly new thing to all who now hear of it.” Here was the idea! Here, the declaration of the entity! We need not be concerned with later works, some of them dubious, which are ascribed to him.

Exit, now, Amer(r)igo or Americus or Albericus, and whether or not he was a faker makes not the slightest difference in the outcome.

Back to Hylacomylus. By the year 1507 he had done well for himself, in a provincial way. He was a member of what we might now call a scholarly institute, a “think-tank,” in the town of St. Dié in Lorraine, under the patronage of the local duke. The time was the burgeoning Renaissance; Greek studies were in vogue; one of the “fellows” had a printing press; even in far-inland Lorraine there was interest in the amazing discoveries of strange lands.

By this time the star of Columbus had sunk low and grown dim. His idea of the Indies was not convincing. He himself had lost favor at court. Was not Vespucci a better guide?

In any case, the little institute at St. Dié decided to reprint one of the Florentine’s pamphlets, with a map, the title to be Cosmographiae Introductio. Who should be chosen to write the preface to the volume? No other than one of the members who was beginning to establish himself as a geographer—that is, Waldseemüller/Hylacomylus. Rarely have the need and the man arrived at a more fitting union.

Written in Latin, his pertinent statement may be translated thus:

Now, indeed, these parts [the three “older” continents] have been broadly explored, and a fourth part has been found by Americus Vesputius, as will be shown later. I do not see why anyone should rightfully object to calling this part for Americus (its discoverer, a man of intelligence) to wit, Amerige, that is, Land of Americus, or America—since both Europe and Asia got their names from women.

At this point in history a great name is, we may say, struggling to be born. But just what form will it take? The first suggestion is for Amerige. In the name-obsessed mind of Hylacomylus this spelling had some justification because of the Italian form Amerigo. More definitely, however, it is to be analyzed as Ameri-ge, with the Greek word for land thus fused with the Italian personal name. In fact, the actual spelling in the text is Amerigen, the form of a Greek accusative case.

The other suggestion is America—a name destined for greatness far beyond any imagining of its creator. Its origin is simple, since it is merely a Latin feminine form, derived from the already established Americus. By analogy with the other continents, as also from the usual Latin practice of having names of islands and countries in the feminine, that gender was the natural one. In this original text America takes second place (or may, indeed, be taken as a mere explanation of Amerige), but it seems to have been its creator’s final choice, or else he yielded to pressure from others. In any case, on the map which he published the name stood as America.

The outcome can only be viewed as both amazing and fortunate. In itself the one form may seem as good as the other. But the -a ending was unambiguous in pronunciation, drawing strength from thousands of established names. The -e ending was much less familiar, and would have resulted in countless difficulties in being passed from one language to another.

But America had still other advantages. To anyone, it actually looked like the name of a continent. Europe, Asia, Africa—each begins with a vowel and ends with one. If we take the Latin form, all of them end in a. Africa and America share the syllables -rica. The new name slid easily into its place.

Moreover, it was an easily slidable unit—euphonic, with its m, its r, and its plentiful vowels. Either an orator or a poet could use it readily—as many thousands of both have done. It comprised only common sounds, used in all European languages.

Another advantage (for people of the Renaissance, if not for moderns) existed in the analogy which the original passage notes—that is, that no one can well raise objections, “since both Europe and Asia got their names from women.” Here, weighted with the tremendous authority of the ancient Greeks, was the justification for naming a continent after an individual. The author was proposing, apparently, that with two continents named for women, no one can well object to having one named for a man.

Also of importance was that America was, from the beginning, essentially a proper noun, without meaning, since its association with a particular person was easily ignored or forgotten, and did not, in any case, constitute a valid “meaning.” There was no call for translation; in fact, translation would have been unwarranted. Here lay the great weakness of such a name as Newfoundland—that it demanded translation, and thus failed to be international. But America, from the beginning, was international.

The greatest point in favor of the new name, however, was merely that it filled a need. The preconceptions of Columbus were going by the board. An entity—and among the greatest of earthly entities—was appearing among men. They must have a name for it. By great good luck a German pedant, living in an out-of-the-way town, produced a name which was at once practical, universal, and beautiful.

The pamphlet had fairly wide circulation—the map, probably, with it. In a few years the name was established. Hylacomylus must have thought that he had loosed a whirlwind.

If any distinction is to be made, we must admit that the name was applied first to the southern continent, and it is thus placed on the map of 1507. Later voyagers and explorers by land outlined a second narrowly connected land-mass. The use, for it, of another name would have been advisable, but this time luck did not serve, and no ingenious namer turned up with an idea. So we have the cumbersome North America and South America.

In one way, however, the northern continent has stolen the name. With the establishment of the first independent nation of the Americas, its government and people, by common practice rather than by any definite action, began to use United States of America. Some voices were raised that it should really be United States of North America, but that substitute was too long, and was not, in itself, wholly accurate, since the new nation did not include all, or even most, of the northern continent.

A worse situation arose when common usage began to consider that America was sufficient in itself, and that “American” was all that was needed for an adjective or for a citizen of that country. By the time, about half a century later, when other nations arose in the Americas, the situation was so well established that nothing, practically, could be done about it, in spite of some protests, both from inside and from outside.

In naming-history, America thus began with great good fortune, but in the end suffered a certain blunting of that success.

Its fantastic story, however, may serve as another example of the difficulties associated with the elucidation of many of the great names.

Excerpted from Book III Namers at Work, Chapter 18 Half the World, Names On the Globe by George R. Stewart