by Karen Jeynes

Our recent celebration of our wordnerds and the 145 countries they’ve come from in the last month – yes, I’m still talking about it – got me thinking. All those country names: a vast collection of beautiful words, all conveying great meaning. Here is a fascinating strand of linguistics, toponomy, the study of place names. Country names carry the weight of identity, of politics, of geography, of history, of language. And yet, when you look at the words themselves, remarkable similarities emerge.

Afghanistan, for example, means land of the Afghanis. The same -stan found in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and – although they’ve not yet visited us – Uzbekistan. Other countries with “land” in them are of course Iceland, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Thailand and the delightfully plural Netherlands. But Rwanda has those all beaten, simply meaning “land”, from the Kinyarwanda kwanda. Oh, and then there’s Ukraine, meaning, well, “land”, from the Slavic krajna. Vanuatu takes things a step further by meaning “our land”.

There are countries named after geographical features: rivers, lakes and mountains, like Nigeria, Montenegro and Moldova. Or from cultural groups, like Belgium, land of the Belgae, and Armenia, land of the Armenioi. Others after directions – Norway (Northern Way), Austria (Eastern March) and a vast number of Souths, including South Sudan, Viet Nam (literally Viet South), Australia (Southern land, abbreviated from terra Australis incognita, unknown Southern land)  and of course, the most literal of all, my homeland, South Africa. Ecuador straddles the Northern and Southern hemispheres, taking its name from the equator. Sierra Leone means lion mountains, Singapore the lion city. There are two lands of the free (neither of them the USA): Liberia, from the French liber, meaning free, established as a homeland for freed slaves; and Uzbekistan, from uz meaning self and bek meaning master.

Ethiopia is the land of the blacks, from the Greek aithopia, and was originally used to describe all of sub-Saharan Africa. Sudan is also the land of the blacks, from the Arabic Bilad as-Sudan, originally the entire Sahel region. There are countries named after people: Seychelles, Kiribati, Phillipines, Mozambique,  several saints – St Vincent and the Grenadines would, I feel, make an excellent hipster band. There are countries named after other places, New Zealand from Zeeland in Holland, and Venezuela, a “little Venice”. Costa Rica is the rich coast, Cote d’Ivoire the ivory one.

To find the smallest country in the world we might try Canada, which means village in Iroquoian, or Zimbabwe, the house of stones, named for the Great Zimbabwe ruins. But after all, it might be Monaco, from the Greek monoikos, “single dwelling”, which takes that title. There’s the poetic Burkina Faso, the land of honest men, and Ghana, the warrior king.

Two wordnerd delights come in the shape of The Gambia, the only country which must always be named with the “the”, and a portmanteau, Tanganyika and Zanzibar combining to form Tanzania. And if you look hard enough, there are true linguistic gems to be found. Namibia, named for the Namib desert, which, in the Nama language means “place where there is nothing”. Palau, which derives from its local aidebelau meaning “indirect replies”.

But in the end, two countries battle it out for the most delightful toponomy. One is ancient and bearded, the other is a shrimp. Ancient and Bearded…perhaps better known to you as Antigua and Barbuda. Antigua, you might be able to see is similar to antique, meaning ancient, an abbreviation of Santa Maria la Antigua, and Barbuda means “bearded”, possibly for the fig trees prevalent on the island, possibly just from the locals’ predilection for facial hair. And of course, Cameroon. Cameroon means “shrimp”, from the French cameroun, and was named after a massive swarm of ghost shrimp (which are a type of shrimp, and not, in fact, ghosts) in the Wouri River in 1472.

So which one is the best? Well I don’t want to ‘land’ myself in any trouble, so I’ll call it a draw.



Karen Jeynes

About Karen Jeynes

Karen Jeynes (@karenjeynes) is a playwright, dramaturg, wordsmith, proponent of the Oxford comma, and collector of words. She has been known to rub her hands with girlish glee on discovering a new one. She experiences high levels of angst over misplaced apostrophes, sometimes having to have a bit of a lie down. She is perilously partial to puns. And also alliteration.


18 Comments to “Toponomania”

  1. This is amazing! I can’t believe I never knew do many of these!

  2. I need to move to Antique and Bearded! Brilliant, Karen!

  3. This is a superb collection! And so beautifully written.

  4. I think I may fast be becoming a toponomaniac too!

  5. Hahaha the land of the free! This is genius, Karen.

  6. I simply love this!

  7. It is wonderful to see so many countries being celebrated, thank you Karen.

  8. Love how you matched the flags with the text! And superb text too.

  9. Wow, my mind is blown! I’d honestly never thought about country names meaning anything – sounds daft, I know. Thanks for sharing!

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