The Man Who Named America

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Another advantage (for people of the Renaissance, if not for moderns) existed in the analogy that the original passage in Cosmographiae Introductio notes: that is, that no one ought to raise objections—“since both Europe and Asia got their names from women.” Here—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 could 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 new name 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 that was at once practical, universal, and beautiful.

The pamphlet had fairly wide circulation—and probably the map 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. For this one 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 in America, 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 wholly accurate either, since the new nation did not include all of the 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 a half century later, when other nations arose in the Americas, the situation was so well established that nothing practical could be done about it, in spite of some protests both from inside and from outside.

In the history of naming, 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 an example of the difficulties of tracing how important places acquired their noble names.