The Origin of the Names of the Continents

Emily Upton 14
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

If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:

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.

[Map Image via Shutterstock]

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14 Comments »

  1. Georgia May 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm - Reply

    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
      Daven Hiskey May 7, 2013 at 4:45 pm - Reply

      @Georgia: Interesting stuff. :-)

  2. Josh Brown May 8, 2013 at 12:08 pm - Reply

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

  3. JP November 20, 2013 at 5:33 pm - Reply

    Hello,

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

    Great website, thanks!

    • Daven Hiskey
      Daven Hiskey November 20, 2013 at 7:15 pm - Reply

      @JP: Thanks for catching that. Fixed! And I’m glad you like our site :-)

  4. Desmond October 12, 2014 at 1:35 am - Reply

    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?

  5. Josh November 15, 2014 at 12:23 am - Reply

    etymonline.com 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.”

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