clock menu more-arrow no yes

Map: 19 countries whose names come from specific people

Why is Saudi Arabia called Saudi Arabia? Why does Georgia, a country in South Caucasus, have such an Anglo-sounding name? And where does the word "America" come from? As it turns out, all of these country names are derived from specific people — something that's common around the world, as this really cool map shows.

The map, from Reddit user BlackJackKetchum, shows 19 countries around the world whose names are derived from historical or biblical figures. Green countries are named after explorers, blue ones after political/military leaders or groups, and brown ones from religious figures:

countries around the world named after people 1

(BlackJackKetchum)

This map doesn't show every country on earth named after a person, but it is an interesting selection. The predominance of Christian names on the map is telling about European colonialism and Christianity's influence on world history. Here's an explanation of each country's name. (The country is listed first, with the corresponding name on the above map listed second.)

  1. The United States of America/Amerigo Vespucci: The name "America" comes from Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian-born explorer whose trips west convinced him that he was encountering a new continent rather than the eastern edge of India. Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer who made the first map of the new world in 1507, named it "America" after Vespucci on his map. The name stuck.
  2. The Dominican Republic/Saint Dominic: After Columbus named the island containing Haiti and the DR Hispaniola, his brother, Bartholomew Columbus, founded a settlement called Santo Domingo — named after Saint Dominic, fonder of the Dominican Order. That's the origin of the modern Dominican Republic.
  3. St. Vincent and the Grenadines/Saint Vincent: Though Saint Vincent was both a British and French colony over the course of its history, Columbus (who may never have visited the island) appear to be its namer. Saint Vincent of Saragossa is a Spanish martyr killed around 304 AD; the Grenadines are named after the Kingdom of Grenada in Spain.
  4. St. Lucia/Saint Lucy: It's not exactly clear which European colonists named the island after Saint Lucy of Syracuse, though it's most often attributed to the French. Saint Lucy, a martyr from Roman times, is the patron saint of the blind.
  5. Saint Kitts and Nevis/Saint Christopher: Saint Kitts was originally named Saint Christopher by Columbus, after his patron saint. British explorer Sir Thomas Warner shortened the island's name to St. Kitts in the 17th century. Nevis comes from the Spanish word nieves, which means snow: Columbus thought the clouds atop mountains on the island looked like snow.
  6. Trinidad and Tobago/The Trinity: Trinidad is also a Columbus invention, referencing "la Trinidad" — the Christian Holy Trinity. Tobago appears to be derived from the Spanish word for tobacco (tabaco).
  7. El Salvador/Jesus Christ: Literally translated, it means the savior — Jesus Christ. The name is the result of a Spanish invasion and war on native peoples that began in 1524.
  8. Colombia/Christopher Columbus: Colombia is named after Columbus, but not in the way that you might think. The name Colombia dates back to Francisco de Miranda, a revolutionary who sought to overthrow Spanish colonial rule in late-18th and early 19th century Latin America. He used "Colombia" as a term for all of so-called Spanish America. After General Simon Bolivar actually defeated the Spanish in 1819, the name came to refer to the new country of Gran Colombia (roughly present-day Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, and Venezuela).
  9. Bolivia/Simon Bolivar: The country is named after revolutionary general Simon Bolivar — but he actually didn't approve. According to University of Central Florida professor Waltraud Q. Morales, Bolivar himself wanted to keep Bolivia, then called Upper Peru, as part of Peru. When a gathering of leading Upper Peruvian citizens voted for independence in 1825, they named the new country Bolivia in an attempt to minimize the personal slight to Bolivar.
  10. Venezuela/Simon Bolivar: The formal name of Venezuela has been Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela since 1999. Former President Hugo Chavez insisted on the name change during the drafting of the 1999 constitution. The leftist president saw himself as a revolutionary and opponent of imperialism throughout Latin America — in his eyes, the natural heir to Bolivar.
  11. Israel/Israel: The modern name Israel isn't really about one person, but its roots are in the biblical patriarch Jacob. After Jacob wrestles with a man (often interpreted to be an angel in Jewish tradition) in Genesis 32, he's renamed Israel as a title of honor. The name became applied to the Jews in general ("the Israelites"), and served as the name of the historical Kingdom of Israel. Before modern Israel's 1948 declaration of independence, Zionists weighed the name Israel against alternatives (like Judea, another ancient Hebrew state), but ultimately decided that Israel best captured the character of the state they wanted to build.
  12. Jordan/the Clan of Hashem: Jordan's full name is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, named after the ruling Hashemite family. The Hashemites ruled the Emirate of Transjordan, a British protectorate, from 1921 to 1946; after Jordan became independent, the Hashemites continued to rule, and named the country after themselves.
  13. Saudi Arabia/the House of Saud: Saudi Arabia is a country invented by the House of Saud, which went from a minor political family in the 18th century to a dominant force in the Arabian peninsula by the early 20th century. In 1932, when modern Saudi Arabia was officially formed, Saudi leaders decided there was no better way to celebrate their victory than to name the new country after themselves.
  14. San Marino/Saint Marinus: San Marino was named after its supposed founder, Marinus the Dalmatian — a stonecutter who was later canonized as Saint Marinus (San Marino in Italian). Allegedly, Marinus founded the European microstate in 301 A.D. as a bastion of religious freedom, and San Marino today styles itself as the world's oldest republic.
  15. Georgia/Saint George: Georgia's modern name comes from the British, as well as a Russian word, but its origins date all the way back to Arabic, Ottoman, and Persian rule. Though the country's name is Sakartvelo in Georgian, the country is closely associated with St. George and images of the saint are common around the country. Its imperial overlords chose to reference the saint rather than the local nomenclature in their names for the place. Hence, Georgia.
  16. São Tomé and Príncipe/Saint Thomas: The largest island in this island nation off the west coast of Central Africa, São Tomé, was named by Portuguese sailers Pedro Escobar and Joao de Santarem. These two happened on the island on December 21, 1470, and named it after the Feast of Saint Thomas.
  17. Mauritius/Prince Maurice of Nassau: Ancient Arab sailers referred to Mauritius as Dina Robin, but its modern name comes from the Dutch. In 1598, Dutch explorers decided to stake a claim to the island. They named it after Maurice, a skilled general and the stadtholder (chief executive) of Holland and the other nearby states that would eventually become the Netherlands.
  18. The Philippines/Phillip II of Spain: The Philippines has had several names throughout its history, but the current one dates back to 1543. An expedition led by Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named two of the islands, Leyte and Samar, Las Filipinas after Prince Phillip of Asturias (later King Phillip II of Spain). The name came to refer to all of the nearby islands, and morphed into The Philippines.
  19. The Solomon Islands/King Solomon: The Solomon Islands had been settled for millennia, but Europeans (as they tend to do) renamed the islands once Spaniard Álvaro de Mendaña happened upon them in 1568. A number of people came to believe that de Mendaña had discovered the legendary gold mines of the biblical King Solomon. This was very dumb, but it did produce the Pacific island nation's modern name.

If you're really interested in this sort of thing, the map's author made a expanded follow-up based on this Wikipedia page. It includes a few new countries and a new category — countries based on non-biblical mythological figures. The accuracy of this list is a bit more dubious (for example, it's not 100 percent clear Tunisia is named after the goddess Tanith), but it's still a fun map:

countries named after people map 2

(Black Jack Ketchum)