April 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 3
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.
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.
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.