In our daily discussions and conversations we often mention the names of many countries and continents, yet seldom do we think about where these terms came from. In truth, each of these names carries with it a rich, ancient – and sometimes surprising – history.
It is fitting to begin with Africa, which comes first both alphabetically and historically. As with most ancient names, there are multiple hypotheses for the origins of “Africa”. The vast majority of the possibilities come from either a Biblical origin, or a Latin one. Nearly two millennia ago, the historian Josephus suggested that Africa comes from the Biblical figure named Epher, the grandson of Abraham, as recorded in Genesis 25:4. Josephus wrote that Epher’s family and descendants settled in Africa, hence the name.
More recently, scholars have proposed that it comes from the Hebrew (and/or Phoenician) afar, which means “dust”, referring to the deserts and sands of Northern Africa, while others say it stems from Ophir, mentioned in the Bible (I Kings 9 and 10) as the land beyond the Red Sea from which King Solomon brought gold, ivory, and exotic animals. Interestingly, in 1946 a pottery shard was discovered near Tel-Aviv with an inscription mentioning the “gold of Ophir”. The shard was dated back to what would have roughly been the time of King Solomon. The Portuguese scholar Thomé Lopes, who travelled alongside the great explorer Vasco da Gama, connected Ophir with Zimbabwe.
Meanwhile, several Latin origins have been proposed as well. The Romans referred to an indigenous Libyan tribe as Afri, with the suffix “-ca” often used in Latin to refer to a certain landmass. Alternatively, aprica means “sunny” in Latin, while africus is a “southern wind”. It may also come from the Greek aphrike, “without cold”.
Although most people believe that Columbus was the first European to reach America, the reality is quite different. Nearly five centuries earlier, the Viking explorer Leif Erikson landed in modern-day Newfoundland (in Canada), and established a colony called “Vinland”. Archaeologists have discovered this settlement, and it is now a Canadian National Historic Site.
Meanwhile, the Italian navigator Amerigo Vespucci explored the coasts of South America and is credited with determining that America is a separate continent, and not part of Asia (whereas Columbus insisted to the last days of his life that the new lands must be part of Asia). In 1507 (after Columbus’ death) the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller made a series of maps that, for the first time, named the new continent “America”, after the Latinized name of the explorer, Americus Vespucius.
Interestingly, Amerigo is the Italian form of the name Emeric, which itself comes from the German Heinrich (or Henry, in English). Heinrich literally means “rich house” – a fitting title for the wealthy and resource-rich lands of America.
This cold continent gets its name from the Greek anti and arktikos, literally meaning “opposite of the Arctic”. Arktikos comes from arktos, meaning “bear”. Some suggest that this is because the Arctic region has polar bears, while Antarctica is devoid of polar bears. Others say that Arktos is the Greek name for the “Great Bear” constellation, Ursa Major, which is only visible in the Northern Hemisphere.
The term “Antarctica” appears as far back as the writings of Aristotle, and is also seen in Roman maps, referring to southern regions (and not present-day Antarctica, which was only discovered in the 1770s). In fact, the French once had a small colony in Brazil called Antarctique.
There is no clear consensus on the origin of “Asia”. The term was used as far back as the 5th century BCE by Greek historians, usually to refer to the lands of Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and the Persian Empire. Some suggest this Greek term stems from the older Phoenician word asa, which means “east”, and/or the Akkadian asu, “to ascend”, referring to the direction of the rising sun. There are several other proposed etymologies, including the Hittite term Assuwa, referring to the Western coast of Anatolia.
Interestingly, the Greek historian Herodotus writes that many Greeks believed Asia is named after Hesione, referring to either the Trojan princess of that name, or the wife of Prometheus (the Titan who stole fire from Mt. Olympus and brought it to mankind). Amazingly, scholars believe the Prometheus legend comes from a more ancient Vedic (Indian) myth; the term pra math in Vedic Sanskrit means “to steal”, while pramantha was the tool to spark a fire.
Australia gets its name from the Latin australis, meaning “south”. The first place to be called Australia was actually an island of Vanuatu, first discovered by the Spanish. In the early 1800’s, it became more common among the British settlers of what is today Australia. In 1817, one of the land’s governors, Lachlan Macquarie, suggested the name to the British government, who formally adopted it in 1824. The entire continent was known as Australia, and in 1901, the six colonies on the mainland formed a new country, the Commonwealth of Australia.
To avoid confusion between the country and the entire continent, which also includes New Zealand and many other islands in the Pacific, other names have been proposed and used for the continent. Some of these are Sahul (probably a Malay term, first appearing in 17th-century Dutch maps), Australasia, and Meganesia. The most all-inclusive term, however, is Oceania, coined by the Danish-French geographer Conrad Malte-Brun in 1812. This is quite appropriate, since most of the nations of this continent are scattered across the Pacific Ocean among thousands of islands. Australia itself is the world’s largest island, and has an additional 8,222 smaller islands within its borders!
The etymology of Europe is still up for debate. Some suggest that it is derived from the Semitic root erev, meaning “evening” or “west” (ie. the direction in which the sun sets in the evening). This would be a fitting companion to Asia’s etymology of “rising” and “east”.
More famous is the origin myth of Europa and Zeus. In this ancient story, Zeus seduces the Phoenician princess Europa (whose name may also come from erev, since Phoenicia was the western coast of the Semitic lands). He does this by turning into a white bull, which Europa mounts, and then swimming away to the island of Crete. There, Zeus and Europa live together and have three sons. One of these sons is the legendary Minos (of minotaur fame), the first king of Crete. According to historians, the Greeks are descendants of people who originally came from Crete and settled along the Greek coasts. The Greeks would later call the lands upon which they live “Europe” (including the modern-day Balkan states and western Turkey).
In the Medieval period, it was likely that the continent was more commonly referred to as “Christendom”. However, as Greco-Roman knowledge and art made a big come back during the Renaissance, and as Christianity played less and less of a role following the Enlightenment, “Europe” became the standard term for the entire continent.
Of course, these continents are all based on cultural, historical, and political boundaries. Geographically-speaking, there are actually a dozen or so major continental plates, with Europe and Asia as one Eurasian plate and, among others, separate Arabian, Indian, and Philippine continents.