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How Madagascar Got Its Beautiful Name
Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

How Madagascar Got Its Beautiful Name

Picture of Fabienne Rafidiharinirina
Updated: 13 March 2018

Madagascar is a country with a rich history – discovered by the Portuguese explorer Diego Diaz in August 1500 on Saint Laurent’s day, it bears his memory within the moniker ‘Diego Suarez’ given to the northern region’s capital. But where does the island itself get its name from? Here’s everything you need to know.


The word ‘Madageiscar’ appeared in Marco Polo’s narrative entitled Devisement du Monde, though he had never been to Madagascar during his trip along the Silk Road in 1269. What we are certain of is that it comes from overseas, as the letter ‘c’ doesn’t exist in the Malagasy alphabet, though many possibilities as to its origins have been put forward by different sources, old rumors and the transcription of historical maps.

Madagascar Origin - spot-01

Alex Mellon / © Culture Trip

French rumor

In the 1700s, the Malagasy people were dubbed ‘Malegache’ as a combination of  two French words: ‘mal’ and ‘gache’, which translates to ‘careless work’. However, Madagascar only became a French colony in 1896, and it has never been proven that ‘Malegache’ was a name given by the French government. Pure rumor ? We just don’t know…

How a historical map led to a different interpretation

The second suggestion was established after an in-depth analysis of mysterious island names mentioned on old world map by historians. In 1885, Alfred Grandidier, a naturalist and French explorer, arrived in Madagascar, and devoted his life to the study of the island. He wrote a famous collection of 30 volumes entitled The Physical, Natural and Political Story of Madagascar, a vital guide for any student of History.

It was Grandidier who discovered that ‘Madagascar’ is actually ‘Malichu’, an island on Richard de Haldingham’s world map made in the 13th century, which in turn was inspired by a map drawn by King Idrisi of Sicily a century before. He later identified that Malichu island is the same as ‘Gesira al malai’, which in Greek, inversely gives ‘Malai Gesira’ – going from ‘lambda’ to ‘delta’ in Greek, the ‘l’ of  ‘Malai’ changes to ‘d’, giving the word ‘Madai’ and ‘Gesira’, which transformed slowly to ‘Gasira’.

From this, the term shifted again, moving from gésira malai − malaigésira – madaig(é)scra – madégescar – madégascar.

Though to date, no concrete origin for the term ‘Madagascar’ has been found, many know it as the country of ‘moramora,’ meaning ‘no hurry’.