How Did Countries Get Their Names?

By Caitlin Hornik


From ancient tribes to explorers to landscapes, every country had to be named after something, right?! Read on to learn about how some countries got their names!


America

America is named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci!

Australia

In the 2nd century, the Greeks used the term Terra Australis Incognita, meaning “Unknown Southern Land,” in reference to the legend of a southern landmass. Later, British explorer Matthew Flinders shortened the name to Terra Australis and then further abbreviated it to Australia. When the Dutch explored the area they referred to it as New Holland.

Bahamas

The origin of this name is unclear. It is said to be named after the Spanish baja mar, meaning “shallow sea.”

Barbados

The word Barbados comes from the Spanish language, meaning “the bearded ones.”

Belgium

This country is named after a group of tribes, the Belgae, that lived between the Rhine and Loire Rivers and English Channel in Roman times.

Brazil

Brazil was named after the Pau-brasil tree. A red dye is extracted from these trees and is quite valuable!

Canada

The Huron-Iriquois word kanata means village or settlement, and is the supposed namesake of Canada.


Colombia

This country takes its name from Christopher Columbus. It was formerly named New Granada after Granada, Spain.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica means “rich coast” in Spanish and was named by Christopher Columbus.

Ecuador

Meaning equator in Spanish, Ecuador’s name is a reference to the equator running through the northern part of the country.

France

France is named for the Franks, the Germanic tribes that invaded the region once the Roman Empire collapsed. France also has Latin origins, with Francia meaning “land of the Franks,” and German origins with franca meaning fierce or brave.

Guatemala

It is suggested that perhaps the name Guatemala comes from the Aztec word Quauhtemallan, meaning “Land of many trees” or “Land of the Eagle.” Home to the volcano of Agua, it could also be said that the name comes from the word Guhatezmalha, meaning “mountain of gushing water.”


Hungary

Hungary’s name comes from a group of tribes, On Ogur, that lived along the Black Sea and moved to Hungary in the 9th century.

Ireland

In Gaelic, iar means “west,” which makes Ireland “Land in the West.”

Japan

This country is named due to its positioning to the east of China. Meaning “Land of the Rising Sun,” it comes from the Chinese characters rì, meaning “sun,” and bĕn, meaning “origin.”

Jordan

Named after the River Jordan, the name comes from the Hebrew root word, meaning “descend."

Kazakhstan

Broken down, Kazakhstan means “Land of the Kazakhs” from stan, with kazak translating to “adventurer,” “free or independent man,” and sometimes “horseman.”

Latvia

Citizens of Latvia refer to themselves as Latvis, meaning “forest clearer,” which is where this country gets its name.

Liechtenstein

This country was named after the family from Liechtenstein castle in lower Austria. Liechtenstein means “bright stone.”


Malta

Malta used to be famous for its honey. It is thought that its name comes from the ancient Greek word melitta, meaning “bee,” which produces meli, meaning “honey.”

New Zealand

This country is named after the Dutch province of Zeeland, meaning “sea land.”

Norway

Literally meaning “The North Way” from the Old Norse Norrevegr, Norway’s name comes from one of the supposed paths of the vikings.

Panama

There are several theories about how this country got its name. The best-known is that Panama is named after a beach used by a fishing village bearing the same name and is said to mean “an abundance of fish.”

Paraguay

Paraguay is named after the river of the same name. Broken down, Paraguay means “river” (para) and “born” (guay). Perhaps this name comes from the Payaguá tribe, meaning “people born along the river.”

St. Kitt’s

This island is named after Saint Christopher, the guardian of sailors and travelers. Christopher Columbus chose this name as an abbreviation for the Saint.


St. Lucia

This island is one of the only countries to be named after a woman! Christopher Columbus named the island after Saint Lucy.

Sri Lanka

Derived from a handful of Sanskrit words, Sri Lanka is known to mean “Blessed Island.”

Taiwan

Its official name is the Republic of China, but Taiwan has also been known as Formosa. This name was given by Portuguese sailors in the 1500s and means “beautiful island.”

Venezuela

European explorers named Venezuela, meaning “Little Italy,” because it reminded them of Venice, Italy.

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