The Man Who Named America


How America got its name is a slightly fantastic tale involving an obscure German scholar who happened to think more highly of Vespucci than he did of Columbus. George R. Stewart tells the story in this excerpt from his new book, Names on the Globe, which will be published by Oxford University Press next month.



The more important a place is, it has been said, the more difficult the explanation of its name.

Though not to be taken more than half seriously, the generalization has some validity. We may note that thousands of names of Italian, Spanish, and English villages are clearly explicable but that Rome, Madrid, and London remain in controversy or obscurity. The reason undoubtedly is that the more important places in general preserve older names.

The second-largest land mass of the earth illustrates the principle but at the same time may be cited as an exception. In short, the name may be held to be clearly understood, but it reinforces the generalization because it displays a fantastic history that would certainly remain hazy but for careful and devoted scholarship and the lucky preservation of rare records.

The story must start with Columbus and his lost opportunity. He began with the idea of reaching Asia by sailing westward, and he obstinately refused to change. Certainly after his second voyage he should have recognized that he had had the glory of discovering a continent hitherto unknown to Europeans. He should have grasped that there was here a new entity. Being an entity, it could bear a name; and being one of enormous size and obviously of enormous importance to the human race, its name would be of tremendous significance.

Unwilling to admit the existence of the entity, however, Columbus could not give it a name. One is led, therefore, to speculate about what might otherwise have happened.

One possibility is that some European potentate, regal or papal, would have given the new continent a name —consciously and by his own supposedly divine authority. The name would almost certainly have been religious. Columbus called his first island San Salvador, and the whole continent might well have been so called and be Salvador today. That this would have been a viable name its existence for a present-day republic attests.

A second reasonable and likely possibility is that a name which had been established locally, at some point on the seacoast, might have spread inland and eventually embraced the continent or even both of them. Venezuela, Mexico, Canada—all represent names that have moved far beyond their original domains.

Still another possibility existed in the use of the term “New World,” most commonly used in its Latin form as Novus Mundus . Again, it did not happen. Perhaps the Latin form was phonetically unpleasing. Perhaps the term was too inaccurate, since not a world but two continents were actually involved. The New World remained as a potent oratorical and poetic term but not as a name.

Latin, however—serving then as a much-used international language- offered other possibilities, and its feminine form for “new” was less cumbersome than the masculine and neuter forms. Many names with feminine endings appear on early maps, such as Nova Hispania and Nova Francia. No doubt Nova Asia or Nova Europa might similarly have served for the newly discovered continent.

Granted sufficiently bad luck, we might speculate, Columbus’ original idea could even have survived. The whole continent might have been named—with infinite ambiguity and inconvenience—Nova India.

With such reasonable possibilities eliminated, anyone would hesitate to advance an altogether fantastic one, that is, that the magnificent and worldfamous 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 been forced to reject all the reasonable ideas and to accept the fantastic one.

Even though the name he propagated applies to a considerable fraction of the globe, we know little enough about this German scholar. 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 that were highly 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 who are fascinated by names. We can see as much in his manipulation of his own name, which was Martin WaIdseemüller, 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-lakkomylo-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 (if we may so put it) is not to be trusted with a name.