What do England, Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, France, Italy, Switzerland and Afghanistan all have in common? Well, according to Quartz, which analysed 195 countries listed in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names, they are all named after an early tribe or ethnic group.
If you have ever wondered how a country gets its name, it turns out it’s not too dissimilar to how people receive their first names. In other words, just as names are given to people without their input, so are the names of most nations.
According to a new study by Quartz, every country in the world is named after one of four things: a tribe, a feature of the land, a directional description, or an important person.
The largest majority of countries, about one-third, are named after an early tribe or ethnic group.
England: Named after the Angles tribe. They were Germanic peoples who settled in Great Britain in the post-Roman period.
France: Named after the Franks – another Germanic tribe who conquered France after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Thailand: Relates to the “Tai” people, an ethnic group from the central plains region.
Vietnam: Named after the Viet tribe who lived in what is now southern China in ancient times.
Switzerland: The country takes its name from Schwyz, one of its original provinces and earliest settlers.
Italy: Named after the Vitali tribe.
Russia: From the Medieval Latin term ‘Russi’, which denoted the people of the land.
Afghanistan: The name translates to ‘Afghan-land; place of the Afghans’.
There is even a name for this study of place names itself – toponymy. Through this research, Quartz also found that around a quarter of all countries are named after men; this is true of the United States of America, named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Similarly, the Philippines was named after Spain’s King Philip II.
Famed Italian explorer Christopher Columbus, who is sometimes credited with discovering America, holds the record for having named the most number of countries – eight in total. He’s thought to have given Antigua and Barbuda, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago their names.
The study also found that there are 20 or so countries whose name origins are disputed or unknown. Among these are Malta, which could mean ‘refuge’ or ‘bees’, and Mexico, which may have originated from the Spanish simplification of the Aztec city of Metztlixihtlico, meaning, bizarrely, ‘in the navel of the moon’.
Best of all, Nauru, an island northeast of Australia, is the world’s smallest republic and is named after the indigenous word ‘anáoero’, meaning ‘I go to the beach.’