The Origin of the Names of the Continents

worldToday I found out the most likely origin of each of the continents’ names. (Using the seven continent model)

First on this list is Africa. There are many different theories as to the origin of Africa’s name. After the Romans defeated Carthage (which is in modern-day Tunisia in Northern Africa) in the third Punic War, they called their new province “Africa.” The most popular theory as to the origin of the name is that it was named for a native tribe there—the Afri, with “Africa” then being the feminine form of “Africus”, literally meaning “land of the Afri”.

An alternate theory, which has a hole in it due to when the name was first used, is that it comes from the Phoenician word “afar” which means “dust.” Put together with the Latin suffix –ica, sometimes used to denote “land”, the name could mean “a land of dust.” Given Africa’s hot, desert-like climate in the north, which is where the Romans claimed their province, the Phoenician root is considered by many to be a plausible alternative to the “Afri tribe” theory, for the origin of Africa’s name.

Whatever the case, as Europeans continued exploring and discovered the breadth of the continent, the name that the Romans had originally used for their small province stuck, and the entire continent became known as Africa.

Antarctica comes from the Greek word “antarktike,” which literally means “opposite to the north.” The continent is, of course, home to the southernmost point on Earth. John George Bartholomew, a Scottish cartographer, is believed to be the first person to use “Antartica” to refer to the continent. However, the name was used for a different place by the French before this. In the 1500s, they held a colony in Brazil below the equator which they named France Antartique.

Asia derives from the Ancient Greek “Ἀσία”, which was used as early as 440 B.C. by Herodotus in his Histories. However, it is likely that the name was in use long before then, though not referring to a whole continent, but rather originally just the name for the land on the east bank of the Aegean Sea, and then later the Anatolia (part of modern Turkey).

Romans referred to two provinces when talking about Asia: Asia Minor and Asia Major. A common theory is that the Greek name ultimately derived from the Phoenician word asu, which means “east”, and the Akkadian word asu which means “to go out, to rise.” In reference to the sun, Asia would then mean “the land of the sunrise.”

Terra Australis Incognita means “the unknown land in the south” in Latin, and rumours of the continent’s existence dated back to Ancient Roman times. Of course, Romans did not have the maritime technology to reach Australia and did not have any direct evidence that it existed, as far as we know. When Europeans finally discovered the continent, the name “Terra Australis” stuck. The continent was referred to the shortened “Australia” by a number of early explorers, but it was Matthew Flinders who pushed for its use from 1804. Though “Australia” was used unofficially for several years, Governor Lachlan Macquarie petitioned for its official adoption in 1817. It wasn’t until 1824 that the name was officially given to the continent.

Europe was likely named after Europa, one of Zeus’ many lovers in Greek mythology. Legend has it that he abducted her after taking on the form of a white bull and took her to Crete.  It is difficult to determine the etymology of the name, but one theory is that it comes from the Akkadian word erebu which means “to go down, set” or the Phoenician ereb which means “evening, west.” The western directional meaning would mean it had similar origins to Asia. Alternatively, the name Eurpoa may have derived from the Greek “eurys”, meaning “wide”, and “ops”, meaning “face”, so “wide face”.

As in many of the other names of the continents, “Europe” originally didn’t refer to anything close to what we think of as Europe today.  Rather, it was just a small region, like “Asia”, referring to a portion of present day Turkey, part of Thrace.

Like most, I’ve known that the Americas (North and South) were named after Amerigo Vespucci since my early education. However, the story behind why this is the case is somewhat more interesting and quite a bit less well known. Vespucci was a navigator that traveled to “the new world” in 1499 and 1502. Being a well educated man, he realized that this new world was not part of Asia, as some had initially thought. Vespucci chose to write about his travels and his books were published in 1502 and 1504. Being both entertaining and educational, his accounts of the new world were reprinted in almost every European language.

In 1507, a German cartographer, Martin Waldseemüller, chose to make a new map that included the new world. He and two scholarly partners were aware of Vespucci’s writings and were ignorant of Columbus’s expeditions. As such, they decided to name the new land after Vespucci, stating:

But now these parts (Europe, Asia and Africa, the three continents of the Ptolemaic geography) have been extensively explored and a fourth part has been discovered by Americus Vespuccius (the Latin form of Vespucci’s name), I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part after Americus, who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, and so to name it Amerige, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women.

When the large new map, approximately 8 feet by 4 feet, was unveiled by Waldseemüller, it had the large title “AMERICA” across what is now present day Brazil. Waldseemüller used Vespucci’s travelogues as a reference for his drawing and so his map had South America as the only part of this new western hemisphere. When North America was later added, the mapmakers of the time retained the original name. In 1538, the famous geographer Gerard Mercator chose to name the entire north and south parts of America as one large “America” for the entire western hemisphere

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Bonus Facts:

  • Part of Antartica has been named “Queen Elizabeth Land” in honour of Queen Elizabeth II. The area is about twice the size of the United Kingdom.
  • Captain James Cook was sent to find Terra Australis Incognita in 1772. Returning with charts of the eastern coastline of Australia—large enough to be considered a continent—he was turned down by officials who believed that the real Terra Australis Incognita was located farther south. Cook set out again and was the first person to sail into the Antarctic Circle. However, he turned away to resupply his ship before seeing land. If he had succeeded in his voyage, it is likely that Antarctica would have been named Australia after Terra Australis instead. (The first person to see the Antarctic Continent was Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen in 1820).
  • Europa is also the name of one of Jupiter’s moons.
  • An alternate theory as to how America got its name, not backed up by a whole lot of documented evidence, you may sometimes hear is that a tribe of Native Americans named the Amerrique may have existed, and both Columbus and Vespucci may have visited them. The word is said to originate from the Mayan word for “exceptionally strong wind.”
  • Another “America” theory that you may sometimes here, again, not backed up by nearly the evidence as the above in the main article, is that it was named after a Bristol merchant named Richard Amerike. Amerike and other merchants had been trading items and fishing off the coast of Newfoundland for many years before Christopher Columbus and John Cabot made their voyages to America. The theory is that the fishermen who worked for him named the area in which they lived after their employer. It is also believed that Amerike sponsored John Cabot on his successful trip to America’s eastern shore, and that Cabot named the land after his sponsor.
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  • I recently read in a book called “The Book of General Ignorance” that the origin of America’s name didn’t come from Amerigo Vespucci. I’ll type it exactly, this is what it read:

    “Who is America named after?”
    ” Not the Italian merchant and cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard Ameryk, a Welshman and a wealthy Bristol merchant. Ameryk was the cheif investor in the second transatlantic voyage of John Cabot– the English name of the Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto whose voyages in 1497 and 1498 laid the groundwork for the layer British claim to Canada. He moved to London from Genoa in 1484 and was authorised by Kin Henry VII to search for unkown lands in the west. On his little ship Matthew, Cabot reached Labrador in May 1497 and became the first reorded European to set foot on American soil, pre-dating Vespucci by two years. Cabot mapped the North American coastline from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland. as the cheif patron of the voyage, Richard Ameryk would have expected discoveries to be named after him. There is a record in the Bristol calendar for that year: ‘…on St John the Baptist’s day [24 June], the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristowe, in a ship of Bristowe called the Mathew’, that clearly suggests this is what happened. Although the original manuscript of this calendar has not survived, there are a number of references to it in other contemporary documents. This s the first use of the term ‘America’ to refer to the new continent.
    The earliest surviving map to use the name is Martin Waldseemüller’s great map of the world of 1507, but it is only applied to South America. In his notes Waldseemüller makes the assumption that the name is derived from a Latin version of Amerigo Vespucci’s first name, because Vespucci had discovered and mapped the South American coast from 1500 to 1502. This suggests he didn’t know for sure, and was trying to account for a name he had seen on other maps, possibly Cabot’s. the only place where the name ‘America’ was known and used was Bristol– not somewhere the French-based Waldseemüller was likely to visit. Significantly, he replaced ‘America’ with ‘Terra Incognita’ in his world map of 1513.
    Vespucci never reached North America. All the early maps and trade were British. Nor did he ever use the term ‘America’ for his discovery.
    There’s a good reaon for this. New countries or continents were never named after a persons first name, but always after the second (as in Tasmania, Van Dieman’s land or the Cook Islands). America would have become “Vespucci Land” (or Vespuccia) if the Italian explorer had conciously given his name to it.”

    That is what the book said, word for word.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Georgia: Interesting stuff. 🙂

    • Fake history.

    • Americapana has always been here. The first to rise from the depths of the sea. The oldest mountain range in the world; the oldest people in the world. Sprung from the soil; Amerukahn, serpent people, autochonous. Mother to ALL civilization.

      -Peace be unto you. Namaste

    • This seems more like given names not the original name because I doubt their were name for each continent before the Europeans named everything and if so who named them

  • Interesting to read this, I’ve always wondered how those names came about

  • Hello,

    Under the last two “Bonus Facts,” should it be “sometimes hear” instead of “sometimes here?”

    Great website, thanks!

  • That was an interesting read.

    However, I’ve always been given to understand that Africa (sometimes spelt ‘Afrika’) is a derivative of ‘Kafir’, a derogatory Arabic term to denote the heathen polytheist black African. Arabs, of course, had contact with black ‘Africa’ well before Rome

    I’m no academic but I wonder if this view has any traction?

  • has some interesting insights…

    (this is for the noun)
    “Latin Africa (terra) “African land, Libya, the Carthaginian territory,” fem. of Africus, from Afer “an African.” Originally only in reference to the region around modern Tunisia, it gradually was extended to the whole continent. Derivation from Arabic afar “dust, earth” is tempting, but the early date seems to argue against it. The Middle English word was Affrike.”

  • “Romans referred to two provinces when talking about Asia: Asia Minor and Asia Major.”

    No, they did not. They called their province Asia. It occupied about the western quarter of the Anatolian peninsula.

    “Antarctica comes from the Greek word “antarktike,” which literally means “opposite to the north.””

    Not quite ‘arktikos’ means ‘pertaining to a bear’ and is reference to the Land/Sea of the Bear (after the constellations).

  • Saint Emeric of Hungary (Hungarian: Szent Imre herceg) also Henricus, Emerick, Emmerich, Emericus or Americus (about 1007 – 2 September 1031) was the son of King St. Stephen I of Hungary and Giselle of Bavaria. He is assumed[1] to be the second son of Stephen, he was named after his uncle, St. Henry II, and was the only of Stephen’s sons who reached adulthood. He was known in Latin as Sanctus Americus, after being canonized for his pious life and purity. At the time of Amerigo’s birth this name was very popular name in Florence.

  • Abhishek Aravind

    antarctica is anti-arctic; arktos is greek for bear. the north pole has bears and the south pole doesnt. thats how the name came about

    • Arktos refers to the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor over the North Pole, not the actual animals themselves.

  • America is a contient; not a country.

    Greetings to all Americans from Chile to Canada.

    • You are absolutely 100% correct!!! All people who were born ANYWHERE in the Americas are Americans!!! That means everyone. North, Central and South America including the Islands are ALL one HUGE continent.

      • If South America is not a continent then Africa is not a continent either. South America is similar in size to Africa, so either both of them are continent-sized or both of them are just little peninsulas. The land joining South America and North America is even narrower than the land joining Africa and Eurasia.

        Why can’t I call Peruvians and Guatemalans Americans too unless I claim South America and Africa aren’t continents?

        • Are Asia and Europe one continent? The answer is no. They are two separate continent, and so is Africa.

          America is one continent, and North and South are subcontinentals derived from America.


          Your reasoning for trying to erase the American continent from knowledge is just nonsensical and childish rhetoric devised in the desire of your nation to appropriate the name of the New World, America/American. Though you covet the name of the continent/people, the United States is not America, but one of many countries in the continent “of America.”. And all who are from America, be they North American, South American, Central American etc…etc.. is no doubt an American.

          • Jennifer seems to *want* to call Peruvians and Guatemalans Americans too and not know why she can’t (did you read “Why can’t I call Peruvians and Guatemalans Americans too”?).

            Why did you accuse her of coveting the name for her own country instead of wanting to share it with other Americans including Peruvians and Guatemalans?

            I agree with you that all who are from the Americas, be they North American, South American, Central American etc…etc.. are no doubt Americans.

            I just don’t see why I and Jennifer can’t believe that, *and* believe that South America is a whole entire continent, *and* believe that “continent” in English and “continente” in Spanish don’t mean exactly the same thing, at the same time.

  • I read somewhere the name america came from the spanish for “to love riches”. the verb for love ‘Amer’ + riches ‘rica’. Amer-rica

  • Your Bonus Fact reagrding Captain James Cook is incorrect, at least the date. Capt Cook sighted and charted the east coast of Australia in 1770 not 1772. He departed England on 26 August 1768, spotted and claimed Australia for England on 19 April 1770.

  • Nick from California

    I have always pondered the relationship between the Ural mountain range separating ‘western European Russia’ with ‘eastern Russia’, that is to say Siberia. The Urals and the European continent? Could it be that the Urals define the eastern border of the European continent?

    • God has Seven Holy Angels in Heavenly realm. One of those Cherubim Angels is named URAL. Isn’t that interesting. The 1st Angel is: URAL in charge of the region called Outer Space or The Second Heaven. The 2nd Angel is: SURAL, ministers to the children, also to the righteous and encourages the fear of God, 3rd Angel is: RAPHAEL, ministers to the souls of humankind on behalf of God, 4th Angel is: REGAL, takes vengenance upon those who commit crimes upon the earth as ordered from God, 5th Angel is: MICHAEL, Leader of all the host (Angels) of Heaven, brings peace and benevolence to people and nations, 6th Angel is: SEROQUEL, rules the spirit of humankind and gives protection to human souls, 7th Angel is: GABRIEL rules over the Holy Angels and the Garden of Eden long ago, also is an advisor to other Angels.

  • No, America is not a “contient”, nor is it a continent. North America is a continent and South America is a continent. So someone from Canada or Mexico can be said to be “North Americans”, and people from Columbia or Venezuela can be said to be “South Americans”, but these peoples are not “Americans.” Only People from America (US of America) are Americans. So hello to all my North American and South American neighbors, we Americans love you.

    • America is the continent, the North and South are precisely that, the north and south of America, hence North And South AMERICA. Subcontinents, not continents.
      North and South Asia, vs Asia.
      North and South Texas, vs Texas.

      The United States is a country in America, hence the post positioned adjective “of America” in the long-form name. At some time officially referred to as United States of North America (laying mention to the subcontinental North of the American continent). The Colonies were referred to as British America, Spanish America etc…There has never been a country named British States of America.

      Again, the country is the United States, and it’s long form name is United States of America(laying mention to America, a continent)

      America is the continent Christopher Columbus is credited with discovering in 1492, the New World. Given the christian name America in 1507 by Martin Waldseemuller in honor of Amerigo Vespucci.

      The continent of AMERICA

      The United States/United States of America.

      It is not only so blatantly obvious, but anyone with even the least bit of common sense would know this.

      It is not only so blatantly obvious, but anyone with even the least bit of common sense would know this.

      This dishonest, and frankly sad childish attempt at trying to appropriate the name of the continent of America by trying to erase it from knowledge, in an even more ridiculous effort to covet the demonyn American is undisguised.

      North Americans, Central Americans, United States Americans, South Americans, Latin Americans etc…have one thing in common, that they are all Americans.

      There is no country named America, and American is everyone from the continent (America). From North to South AMERICA.

      Deal with it, because it is the truth.

      America/American since 1507

  • why all continents but Europe begin with “a” and end with “a”?

    • Sandiso Mthombeni

      (This is my theory),maybe becuase most continents use latin names where the suffix “ica” denotes a land belonging to…. and Europe sounds English not Latin..I could be wrong…
      amerICA..afrICA..AsIA…antarctICA… not sure about australia..sounds like an english word..

      • Well africa was the name giving to the north province modern day Tunasia after Roman won the the 3rd Punic War it was not named Africa till it was colonize by Europe like the other continents

    • In other European languages, the name is Europa or Evropa.

  • The Name Africa has Always been Africa… In the Pre Coptic Translation of the Ancient Hieroglyphs it shows As “AF” – Meaning flesh and and it means flesh in more than 20 different dialects from north to Cape Town South Africa… “AFU” is plural… “RA” means move through matter or house or place of residence, also the mind of the deity Ra… “KA” highland also refers to the high ground upon which the deity of creation first stood. AF (AFU = Plural) RA KA AFURAKA – AFRICA The greeks and romans first contact was with a Berber tribe the Afri but that was in homage to their dark skin. The name has no European influence what so ever. This is Ancient pre Caucasian existence and it is in the Hieroglyphs in which all written text known today derive from…

  • Realy knowldgable site. I was totaly confuse regarding history of or origin of Etc. Thnx

  • I am disturbed dy the outdated concept that these lands were discovered by these Johnny Come Lately’s when there were people living there already. It is erasure, and a more accurate language is needed.