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The Man Who Named America
April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
At this point we must turn to the other character of this fantasy, a Florentine who usually spelled his name Amerigo Vespucci—Latinized as Americus (or Albericus) Vesputius. He has been what is 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 really had 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 the discoveries were indeed a new continent.
In 1503 or the following year he published, under the name Albericus Vesputius, a Latin pamphlet entitled 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 a scholarly institute—what we might now call a think tank—in the town of Saint-Die 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.
At 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 Saint-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: 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, we should guess, 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 that 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 forms, all of them end in - a . Africa and America share the syllables - rica . The new name, so to speak, slid easily into its place.
Moreover it was an easily slideable 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.