How did countries get their names?

Have you ever wondered why your country has the name it has (in the English language anyway)?

How did England get its name? There are two reasons and they are possibly linked. As with countless other countries, the name is largely down to a tribe of early settlers in this case the 5th Century Angles.  They gave us one half of our ‘indigneous’ ethnic group of Anglo-Saxons and also that part of Britain known as East Anglia.

Interestingly when the Vikings came who came from their largely mountainous and forested lands in Scandinavia, when they arrived in England they found a land of meadows.  ‘Eng’ is an old Norse, and a modern Danish word meaning “meadow” and as such England is the land of meadows which seems pretty apt for at least half of the country.

Albion oldest name for British Isles, related to the the word for white, possibly referring to the white cliffs along the SE coast which is closest to and visible from parts of continental Europe.

The invasion of the British Isles by seabourne invaders from the east.

The invasion of the British Isles by seabourne invaders from the east.

In fact, almost every country in the world is named after one of four things: 1) a tribe; 2) a feature of the land; 3) a directional description; or 4) an important person. That’s according to Quartz, which analysed 195 countries listed in the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place-Names.

The name given to the somewhat obscure study of place names itself is toponymy, and here we present a selection of countries in each of the four categories, and how they got their monikers.

Tribe names

England is in good company with the lion’s share (about a third) of the world’s countries named after an early tribe or ethnic group.

FRANCE – Named after the Franks, who conquered the land in the Medieval ages.

VIETNAM – Named after the Viets of the South.

AFGHANISTAN – Translates to “Afghan-land; place of the Afghans”.

THAILAND – Relates to the “tai” people, an ethnic group from the central plains region.

RUSSIA – From the Medieval Latin term “Russi”, which denoted the people of the land.

Important people

It is thought that of all the countries named after powerful or influential people, only one of these was a woman…

SAINT LUCIA – This Caribbean island was named by the French in 1625 after the Catholic Saint Lucy, who was widely worshipped during the Middle Ages.

COLOMBIA – Named after famed explorer Christopher Columbus, who incidentally never even set foot in the country. It was in fact discovered by his companion Alonso de Ojeda in 1499, but was eventually named after Columbus anyway.

PHILIPPINES – Named by Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos, in honor of King Philip II of Spain in 1542.

SAUDI ARABIA – After esteemed warrior and aristocrat Emir Muhammad bin Saud, who is considered the founder of the First Saudi State in 1744.

SEYCHELLES – In 1976, this beautiful chain of islands in the Indian Ocean gained independence from the UK but before that it was controlled by France and was named after French minister of finance Jean Moreau de Sechelles in the 1700s.

EL SAVADOR – This tiny country in Central America takes its name from Jesus and translates to “The Saviour”. It was named by Spanish conqueror Pedro de Alvarado in the 1500s.

Land features

Approximately a quarter of the world’s country names derive from an aspect of the land that differentiates them from others.

ICELAND – This moniker translates to “Land of Ice”, perhaps for obvious reasons, from the ancient language of Old Norse, and is said to have been named by Norwegian Viking Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson in 856 AD. This ignores Iceland’s plentiful green landscape, however, and many theorise that Iceland was named as such to dissuade potential settlers from invading what would have sounded like a cold, hostile environment.

HAITI – This Caribbean country’s name translates to “mountainous land” in its indigenous Taíno language. It was colonised by Spain in 1492 and originally named “La Española”, but was later renamed “Haiti” in 1804 by former slave and revolutionary Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who declared himself emperor and took back the land.

BARBADOS – This name translates to ‘the bearded’ in Portuguese, which is thought to be due to the long hanging roots of the fig trees that were noticed and marvelled at by colonizers in the late 16th Century.

UKRAINE – Ukraine was labelled as such during the 12th Century and translates to “near the border” in Old Slavic. Essentially it was used to define an area of territory within what was then the East Slavic state of Kievan Rus’.


Making up the fourth and smallest group, 25 countries are thought to be named after a directional description.

AUSTRALIA – First coined by the Ancient Greeks, Australia translates to “Unknown Southern Land”, but was officially declared by this name in the early 1800s by English cartographer Matthew Flinders

NORWAY – Conversely, this country traces its name to the Old English term for “northern way”, first mentioned in 880 by the Anglo-Saxons.

JAPAN – Nippon, which is the name commonly used by Japanese natives, means “land of the rising sun”, referring to its geographical location of being east of China.

***If you are enjoying this list then you might enjoy my list of 102 words that aren’t in English but should be***

For completeness sakes, below is a list of pretty much every country in the world and where they got their names from, taken from the Oxford Dictionary.


While some sources claim that Afghan may come from the Sanskrit Avagana, itself perhaps derived from the Sumerian name of the Badakshan region, Ab-bar-Gan, ‘Mountainous Country’, according to a Persian translation, Afghan means ‘wailing’ or ‘moaning’.


Just like Afghanistan, Albania is a mountainous country. It took its name from the Albanoi tribe, which in turn took it from an Indo-European word alb, meaning ‘mountain’.


Algeria is the Anglicisation of the Arabic name Al Jazā᾽ir, ‘the islands’.


The name Andorra comes from a local Navarrese word, andurrial, meaning ‘shrub-covered land’. It has also been suggested that the country took its name from Arabic al-Gandura, ‘the wanton woman’, a legacy from the Moors.


The Portuguese called the Angola area after the first word of the title of the ruler of the Mbundu people in Ndongo, Ngola a kiluanje.

Antigua and Barbuda

Christopher Columbus named Antigua after the Church of Santa Maria de la Antigua, ‘St Mary the Ancient’, in Seville, Spain. The origin of the name Barbuda is not clear, but it has been suggested that it is derived from the Spanish barbados, ‘bearded’.


The name Argentina is said to have been coined by Spanish explorers who, when they first came to the region, noticed the silver ornaments worn by the natives. Thus the word is from the Spanish argentine, ‘silvery’, and means ‘(Land of) the Silver (River)’.


The Armenians call themselves ‘the Hayk’ after Noah’s great-great-grandson from whom the Armenians claim descent. The Armenian name thus means the ‘Land of Hayk’. Armenia, however, may be a modification of Aramaean, a tribe which lived in northern Syria.


Imagining the existence of a land located in the Southern hemisphere, the Greeks came up with the name Terra Australis Incognita, meaning ‘Unknown Southern Land’.


The present name is derived from the fact that the region became a military district on the eastern border called Ostmark, ‘East Mark’, of Emperor Charlemagne’s Frankish kingdom as a buffer against the Avars; it was also referred to as the Avarian Mark.


Azerbaijan may take its name from one of Alexander III the Great’s Persian generals, Atropates, who in turn took his name from the Greek atropatan, ‘protected by fire’.


It is not entirely clear where the Bahamas got their name, but it is said to mean ‘Shallow Sea’ from the Spanish baja mar. It has also been speculated that it is derived from a much older Lucayan word.


Bahrain means ‘Two Seas’, from baḥrayn, the plural of baḥr. It is a reference to the fact that the kingdom has ‘seas’ to the east and west.


Bangladesh means ‘Land of the Bengalis’, from deś, ‘land’ or ‘country’. The Bengalis take their name from Banga, the chief of the Dravidian-speaking Bang tribe.


Barbados is a Spanish word meaning ‘bearded’ or ‘the bearded ones’. It has been speculated that Barbuda got its name from the same root.


The present name Belarus is a shortening of Belaya Rus, meaning ‘White Ruthenia’, but was rendered as ‘White Russia’ in 1795.


The country is named after the Belgae, a confederation of tribes that lived between the Rivers Rhine and Loire in Roman times.


Named after the Belize River. The actual name Belize may be a Spanish mispronunciation of the name Wallace, a Scottish adventurer who is said to have established a settlement at the mouth of the river.


The name may be derived from the Bini, Benin’s original inhabitants. Alternatively, Benin may come from the Yoruba Ileibinu, ‘Land of Argument’, a possible reference to a time when the tribes were at war.


Named Dzongkha in the language of Bhutan, from Druk-Yul, ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon’, often also translated as ‘Land of the Peaceful Dragon’. Bhutan itself is perhaps from Sanskrit Bhot-ant, ‘End of Tibet’, or Bhu-uttan, ‘High End’, or Bhots-than, ‘Land of the Bhutia’ (a Himalayan people originally from Tibet).


Bolivia takes its name from Simón Bolívar, a national hero who led the revolutions against Spanish rule in South America.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia is named after the River Bosna, while the name Herzegovina comes from the Old Serbian Herceg, ‘duke’, ov, to make the genitive case of herceg in order to indicate possession, and ina, ‘property’. It thus means ‘Property of a Duke’, or simply ‘Duchy’.


Named after the indigenous people, the Tswana or baTswana. Their name apparently means ‘those who went away’ or ‘the separators’.


Brazil takes its name from the pau-brasil tree from which a valuable red dye is extracted.


The name Brunei is perhaps derived from the Sanskrit bhūmi, ‘land’.


Possibly from the Turkic bulga, ‘mixed’, Bulgaria is named after the Bulgars, a mix of Turkic and Slav tribes.

Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso translates to ‘Land of Honest Men’, from Mandekan Burkina, ‘honest’ or ‘upright’, and faso, ‘fatherland’.


The name comes either from Kirundi, a Bantu language spoken in Burundi, with Bu, a prefix indicating the country, or from the name of the Rundi people.


Cambodia is the Latinized form of the Sanskrit Kambuja, which in turn is derived from Sanskrit nagara, ‘city’.


Cameroon is the Anglicized form of the Portuguese Camarões. The area was named Rio dos Camarões, ‘River of Prawns’, by Portuguese explorers.


Canada’s name is perhaps derived from the Huron-Iroquois word kanata, meaning ‘village’ or ‘settlement’.

Cape Verde

Named by the Portuguese, Cape Verde translates to ‘Green Cape’.

Central African Republic

The country’s name is a reference to the fact that it lies at the centre of Africa. Its previous name, Oubangui-Chari, comes from the Bantu ou, ‘land’, and bangi, ‘rapid’, and from a reference to the river Chari.


The name is taken from the Lake Chad, which in turn takes its name from the Bornu tsade, ‘lake’, itself from the Arabic tŝād, ‘large lake’.


It is not known how the country got its name, but it may be derived from an Araucanian word for a type of bird. Another theory suggests that it may be a local word meaning ‘where the land ends’.


China takes its English name from the state of Quin, a western Chinese kingdom during the Zhou dynasty.


Previously called New Granada after the Granada in Spain, Colombia’s present name was adapted in 1863 in honour of Christopher Columbus.


The name of Comoros is adapted from the Arabic qamr, ‘moon’.

Congo, The Democratic Republic Of

The Congo got its name from the river Kongo, which is named after the Kongo people who founded the Kongo kingdom. Kong or kongo is a Bantu word for ‘mountains’.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica means ‘rich coast’. The name was chosen by Christopher Columbus, who may have believed that gold would be found there.

Cote d’Ivoire

The Cote d’Ivoire, or Ivory Coast in English, is so called because the French and Portuguese confined themselves to the coast to trade in ivory in pre-colonial times.


Named after the Croats. Their name is either derived from the Persian choroatos, ‘nomads’, from the Caucasus, or from the Serbo-Croat hrbat, ‘mountain ridge’, a reference to the mountains along the Adriatic coast.


Cuba, which is located roughly in the centre of the Caribbean, may have adapted its name from the Taino word Cubanacan, ‘centre place’.


It is believed that the island’s abundant deposits of copper led to the Greeks naming it Kypros. According to another theory, however, the name Cyprus may be taken from the son or daughter of Kinyras, mentioned by Homer as King of Cyprus.

Czech Republic

Named after the Češi, a Slav tribe which came from the east. The name may derive from the Slavonic četa, ‘company’ or ‘group of warriors’, or from Čech, a legendary Slav chieftain. In 2016, the country announced its plan to have its English name Czech Republic shortened to Czechia.


Denmark took its name from the Danes, possibly meaning ‘warrior’. Another theory suggests that it is derived from Old High German tanar, ‘sandbank’, a reference to the number of islands belonging to the country.


The name probably comes from an Afar word, gabouri, ‘plate’. It may refer to the fact that the city is on the coastal plain and surrounded by flat desert.


Discovered by Christopher Columbus and named after the ‘Lord’s Day’, Dies Dominica, or ‘Sunday’, in Latin.

Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic was previously called Santo Domingo, ‘Holy Sunday’, a reference to the fact that it was discovered on a Sunday.

East Timor

East Timor, also known as ‘Timor-Leste’, takes Timor from the Malay timur, ‘east’ – thus East Timor means ‘East East’.


The name means ‘Equator’ in Spanish, a reference to the equator running through the northern part of the country.


The ancient Greek and Roman names Aiguptos and Ægyptus are derived from the Egyptian hūt-kā-ptah, ‘Temple of the Soul of Ptah’, from hūt, ‘temple’, and , ‘soul’, and the god Ptah. The Latin name Ægyptus is said to mean ‘The Land below the Aegean Sea’, from aigaiou hyptios.

El Salvador

Meaning ‘The Saviour’, the country takes its name from a Spanish fort located on the present site of the capital San Salvador.

Equatorial Guinea

See Guinea.


Eritrea was named by the Italians, from the Italianized version of the Latin Mare Erythraeum, ‘Red Sea’, from the ancient Greek erythros, ‘red’.


The country is named after its inhabitants, the Eesti. It is unclear where the word eesti comes from.


The Greeks named the country Aithiops, ‘(Land of) Burnt Faces’, from aithō, ‘I burn’, and opsis, ‘appearance’.


The meaning of Fiji is not known, but it takes its name from its largest island, Viti Levu, meaning ‘Great Fiji’.


The English name, meaning ‘Land of the Finns’, is perhaps derived from the Germanic (or Teutonic Scandinavian) finna, ‘fish scale’. It may be a reference to the type of clothing worn by the primitive Finnish tribes.


The country takes its name from a coalition of Germanic tribes, the Franks, who conquered Gaul (the ancient region of Europe, corresponding to modern France, Belgium, the south Netherlands, SW Germany, and northern Italy) after the fall of the Roman Empire. The name Frank either comes from the Old German word franka, meaning ‘fierce’ or ‘brave’, or from a personal name.


The country adopted the name from the Portuguese, who came up with the name Gabão, ‘hooded cloak’, for the Gabon Estuary, so called because of its shape.


The country takes its name from the Gambia River, itself named by the Portuguese after the local name, Ba-Dimma, ‘The River’. It has also been suggested that the name comes from the Portuguese câmbio, ‘exchange’, in reference to the trade carried out along the river.


The name is derived from the Arabic and Persian words kurj and gurj, both meaning ‘country’ or ‘land’.


The English name for Germany comes from the Roman Germania. Its origin is unclear, but it has been suggested that it is derived from the Germanic gari, ‘lance’, and man, ‘people’. Another theory connects it with the Celtic gair, meaning ‘neighbour’.


Ghana perhaps means ‘king’ or ‘sovereign’ and may be derived from the title assumed by the tribal chieftain of the old Ghanaian empire that was located to the north of modern Ghana.


In English, named after the Graeci people, who may have taken their name from Graecus, a personal name. The Romans used the name Graecia for the country, from which the modern name is derived.


Named Grenada by Spanish sailors because the landscape reminded them of the region around Granada in Spain.


The origin of the name Guatemala is not entirely clear, but it has been suggested that it comes from an Aztec word, Quauhtemallan, meaning ‘Land of Many Trees’ or ‘Land of the Eagle’. It is also possible that the country takes its name from the word Guhatezmalha, ‘Mountain of Gushing Water’, after the volcano of Agua.


Guinea was given its name by the Portuguese after a Berber word, aguinaw, meaning ‘black man’, or akal n-iguinamen, meaning ‘Land of the Black Men’.


The second part of the country’s name, Bissau, comes from its capital. It is taken from the indigenous Bijagó people from the offshore islands.


Its swampy coastline and many rivers probably gave Guyana its name meaning ‘Land of Waters’ after an Arawak or Carib word.


Haiti took its name from the Arawak name of Ayti, the original name for the island now shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Ayti means ‘Land of Mountains’.


The name means ‘Deep Water’ from the Spanish hondura, a possible reference to the depth of the coastal waters.


Hungary’s present name comes from On Ogur, ‘Ten Arrows’, the name of a group of tribes (seven Magyar and three Kavar) living along the north shore of the Black Sea before they moved to modern Hungaryduring the 9th century.


Originally called Snæland, ‘Snow Land’, Iceland’s present name comes from the Norse settlers who renamed it with the intention to deter visitors from coming to the island.


India is a Greek and Latin term for ‘the country of the River Indus’, with Indus probably coming from the Sanskrit word sindhu, ‘the sea’.


The name means ‘Indian Islands’, from Greek Indos Nesos.


The name of Iran is derived from the Old Persian aryānam, the genitive plural of arya, ‘noble’ in the sense of ‘high-born’. It means ‘(Land of) the Aryans’.


Iraq’s name is a reference to its location astride the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. It comes from the Arabic al-‘irāq, ‘the (river) bank’ or ‘beside the water’.


The name is a form of Iar-en-land, ‘Land in the West’ from the Gaelic iar, ‘west’.


Israel takes its name from the ancient land of Israel which itself comes from Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. Jacob’s name was changed to Israel because he was ‘one that prevailed with God’ (Genesis 32: 28).


The name is believed to come from the Vitali tribe whose name may be connected to Latin vitulus, ‘calf’, or witaloi, ‘sons of the bull’. Another theory is that the name is derived from diovi-telia, ‘Land of the Day’ or ‘Land of the Light’.


From the Arawak name of Xaymaca or Yamaya meaning ‘Land of Wood and Water’.


The name means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and is a reference to Japan’s location east of China. It comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Jipen’, from the Chinese characters , ‘sun’, and bĕn, ‘origin’.


Named after the River Jordan, from the Hebrew root yrd, ‘descend (into the Dead Sea)’. The river’s name, however, could mean ‘River of Dan’, with Dan being one of the sons of Jacob.


Kazakhstan means ‘Land of the Kazakhs’, from stan and the Turkic kazak (qazaq or quzzaq), ‘Horsemen’ or ‘Riders of the Steppe’. However, kazak is more commonly translated as ‘adventurer’, ‘outlaw’, ‘raider’, or ‘free, or independent, man’.


Kenya is a shortened version of the Kikuyu name, Kirinyaga, a corruption of the Swahili kere nyaga, ‘Mountain of Whiteness’.


Previously called Gilbert Islands, ‘Kiribati’ is the native pronunciation of Gilbert and is pronounced ‘Kir-a-bas’.

Korea, North

Korea is the Western name for the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392). It can be translated as ‘high and beautiful’.

Korea, South

See Korea, North.


Kuwait takes its name from a small fortress. It is a diminutive of the Arabic kūt, meaning ‘fort’.


The name means ‘Land of the Kyrgyz’ and comes from the Turkic kir, ‘steppe’, and gizmek, ‘to wander’.


Known as ‘Pathét Lao’ (‘Lao state’) in the Lao language, Laos was the name given to unite the three Lao kingdoms in 1893.


The name Latvia is derived from what the Latvians call themselves, Latvis; this means ‘forest clearer’.


Lebanon comes from the Semitic word lavan meaning ‘white’ or ‘whitish’, probably referring to the snowy peaks of Mount Lebanon.


Lesotho translates approximately into ‘the land of the Sotho’.


Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.


The name Libya comes from the Greek name given to Northwest Africa; Libya was the daughter of Epaphus and Memphis in Greek mythology.


Liechtenstein was named after the Liechtenstein family from Liechtenstein Castle in Lower Austria. The name means ‘bright stone’.


The meaning of Lithuania is not known, although it has been suggested that it may be derived from the Latin litus ‘shore’, a reference to the Baltic coast or from the small River Letavka.


Luxembourg is originally found as Luciliburhuc, meaning ‘little castle’.


Macedonia ultimately comes from the ancient Greek root mak, ‘tall, high’, possibly describing tall people living there.


The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.


Malawi comes from Maravi people. Their name means ‘flames’, which may be taken from their habit of burning off dead grass to prepare the land for cultivation.


Malaysia probably comes from the Tamil words malai (mountain) and ur (city).


The name probably comes from the Sanskrit mālādvīpa ‘garland of islands’ from mālā ‘garland’ or ‘necklace’ and dvīpa.


Mali may come from the Malinké people, also known as the Mandinka, who are closely related to other Mande-speaking peoples who trace their ancestry to the Mali Empire. It has also been suggested that the name comes from the Mande word for ‘hippopotamus’.


Famous for its honey in former times, Malta may be derived from the ancient Greek melitta, ‘bee’, which produces meli, ‘honey’.

Marshall Islands

The islands are named after the British explorer John Marshall, who explored them in 1788.


The name comes from the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Mauri.


Mauritius had various name changes before being named, in 1598, after the Dutch Prince Maurice van Nassau.


México is the simplified Spanish version of a Nahuatl name for the Aztec capital, Metztlixihtlico, said to mean ‘In the Navel of the Moon’ from mētztli ‘moon’, xictli ‘navel’ or ‘centre’, and the suffix -co ‘place’ – to give ‘Place at the Centre of the Moon’.


Micronesia translates from the Greek for ‘small’ + ‘island’.


Moldova comes from the name of the Moldova River – which, legend has it, was named by Prince Dragoș after a dog, Molda, which drowned in the river after hunting an aurochs. It is sadly more likely that the name comes from the Gothic mulda, ‘dust’.


It was founded by the Phocaeans in the 6th century bc as Monoikos, a Greek word meaning ‘single house’ or ‘single temple’, signifying a place to rest. However, it may come from the Ligurian monegu ‘rock’


Mongolia is named after the Mongols who took their name from mong ‘brave’ or ‘undefeated’.


Montenegro means ‘black mountain’, said to be a reference to the dark appearance of Mt Lovćen at various times of the year and the surrounding heavily wooded areas.


Morocco is derived from marrūkus, the old Arabic version of Marrakech, the former capital.


Mozambique is said to have come from a ruling Arab Shaikh, Musa al Biq and the town which developed here was known to medieval Arab geographers as Musanbīh and in Swahili as Musambiki.


Myanmar changed its name from Burma in 1989, because the latter was held to be a relic of European colonialism. The current name is taken from Mranma, the local name for the Burmese people and their language. Myan means ‘swift’ and ma ‘strong’.


Namibia comes from the Nama word namib, ‘shield’.


The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.


The origin of Nepal has been disputed: it may mean ‘Beginning of a New Era’, ‘Home of Wool’, ‘Holy Place’, ‘to fly down’ and ‘house’, or be named after a king or kings called Nepa.


Netherlands or ‘Low Lands’ is the literal English translation of Nederlanden, itself a translation from the Latin inferior terra.

New Zealand

The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.


Nicaragua may come from the name of a local 16th-century chief, Nicarao, and agua, ‘water’ in Spanish. Alternatively, it has been suggested that some Spaniards heard the name Nicaragua, perhaps meaning ‘Here, near the Lake’.


The land-locked country takes its name from the Niger River that flows through Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.


Nigeria is also named after the Niger River; Niger, in the river’s name, may come from the Berber phrase ger-n-ger, ‘river of rivers’.


The name means ‘The Way North’ or ‘The Northern Way’ from the Old Norse Norrevegr, a reference to one of the routes taken by the Vikings.


A number of theories exist as to the origin of Oman. Sumerian tablets mention a country called Magan, possibly a reference to Oman’s copper-mining industry.


Pakistan is an acronym deriving from Punjab, Afghan Frontier, Kashmir, and Baluchistan: lands where Muslims predominated.


The origin of the name Palau is unknown, but it should not be confused with Pulau, an Indonesian word meaning ‘island’.


Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.

Papua New Guinea

The name comes from the Malay papuah ‘frizzy-haired men’.


The country takes its name from the Paraguay River whose name comes from para (‘river’ or ‘water’) and guay (‘born’). This name may be connected with the Payaguá tribe, perhaps meaning ‘(People) born (along) the River’.


The name comes from the River Birú or Perú, itself from the Guaraní biru or piru, ‘water’ or ‘river’.


The Philippines were named after Philip II, King of Spain in the 16th century; Philippines is an Anglicization of Filipinas.


The country is named after the Polanie ‘People of the Fields, or Plain’ from pole ‘field’.


Portugal is derived from the Latin portus cale, ‘warm harbour’, which referred to a Roman settlement, now Oporto, at the mouth of the River Douro and the fact that the port was never ice-bound.


There is no certainty as to the origin of the name. Qatara means ‘to fall’, ‘drip’, or ‘trickle’, or ‘to line up camels in single file and connect them with halters’, while qutr means ‘region’ and qutra ‘drop’. Thus the name could have been inspired by the presence of well-water or a camel park.


The name, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from the Romans – as some members of the Roman legions settled in Dacia.


Russia comes from ‘Land of the Rus’’; it has been suggested that Rus’ comes from Ruotsi, the Finnish word for the Swedes, and therefore means ‘Swedish Vikings’; or that it is a Viking word meaning ‘oarsman’


The country takes its name from its indigenous people, the Vanyarwanda.

St Kitts and Nevis

St Kitts is an abbreviation of St Christopher, chosen by Christopher Columbus after his patron saint. Nevis also comes from Columbus, who thought that the island’s summit, often wreathed in cloud, looked like las nieves, ‘the snows’.

St Lucia

Saint Lucia is thought to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus, possibly on 13 December, the feast day of St Lucy.

St Vincent and the Grenadines

The island of St Vincent was discovered by Christopher Columbus on 22 January 1498, the feast day of St Vincent of Saragossa, a martyr who died from torture in 304.


Samoa is said to mean ‘Sacred Centre’ because, according to legend, this is where Tagaloalagi created the world. It may, however, mean the ‘Place of the Moa’, an extinct bird, in the Samoan language.

San Marino

San Marino is amed after a Christian stonemason and later saint, Marinus, who is alleged to have fled Dalmatia to escape persecution by Diocletian (245–316), Roman emperor (284–305), and who founded a hermitage on Mount Titano.

São Tomé and Príncipe

São Tomé and Príncipe translates from Portuguese as ‘St Thomas and Prince’.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi refers to the name of the dynasty whose eponym is Sa’ūd ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin, while Arabia refers to the geographic region, principally the Arabian Peninsula.


Senegal may be named after the Zenaga Berbers. There is another apocryphal explanation that an explorer pointed to the Senegal River and asked what its name was. Il sunu gaol was the reply – meaning ‘our canoe’.


Serbia is named after the Serbs; it declared independence in 2006, having previously been part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and, later, Serbia and Montenegro.


The French laid claim to the islands in 1756 and named them after Jean Moreau de Séchelles (1690–1761), the French controller-general of finance (1754–6); the islands became independent in 1976.

Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.


Singapore is derived from the Sanskrit Sim̄hapura meaning ‘Lion City’, from sim̄ha, ‘lion’, and pur, ‘city’.


Slovakia is named after the Slovaks, a Slav tribe which probably came from Silesia in the 6th or 7th century.


The country is named after its indigenous inhabitants, the Slovenes.

Solomon Islands

The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.


Somalia is named after its indigenous inhabitants, the Somalis, or Soomaali, who may have taken their name from a legendary ancestor, Soma or Samale; it has also been suggested that their name may come from so ‘go’ and mal ‘milk’, a reference to their pastoral lifestyle.

South Africa

South Africa is, of course, the southernmost country in Africa; the word Africa may come from the Berber word afar, ‘dust’, or perhaps the ancient Egyptian root n’fr, meaning ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, or ‘perfect’.

South Sudan

Sudan comes from Balad as-Sūdān, ‘Land of the Blacks’, from balad, ‘land’, as, ‘the’, and sūdān, the plural of aswad, ‘black’.


Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka means ‘Blessed Island’ (also sometimes translated as ‘Resplendent Island’), and may be derived from the Sanskrit shrī, ‘holiness’, ‘happiness’, ‘prosperity’, or ‘honoured’, and lak diga, ‘land mass’.


Sudan comes from Balad as-Sūdān, ‘Land of the Blacks’, from balad, ‘land’, as, ‘the’, and sūdān, the plural of aswad, ‘black’.


The name Suriname is said to come from a local tribe called the Surinas or Surinen, its earliest inhabitants.


The country is named after the Swazis. The Swazis were a Nguni clan, taking their name from Ngwane III, who led them to this region of southern Africa.


Sweden is named after a powerful Germanic people, the Svear or Suiones (the Roman name), who inhabited the area around Lake Mälaren.


Switzerland takes its name from Schwyz, a German-speaking forest community that joined with Uri and Unterwalden in signing a agreement of mutual assistance as the Everlasting League.


The origin of the name Syria is not known, but it may be associated with the ancient Kingdom of Assyria, although this lay mainly in modern Iraq.


Tajikistan takes its name from its indigenous people, the Tajiks, with the additional stan. The Tajiks get their name from an Arab tribal name, Taiy or Tayyi, a name widely used to describe the Arabs in pre-Islamic times.


Tanzania is formed by merging the names of its constituent parts, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which were united in 1964. The added –ia means ‘land’.


The country is named after the Thais whose name means ‘Free (People)’ from fra, ‘to be free’.


Togo comes from Lake Togo, whose name may come from to ‘water’ and go ‘bank’ or ‘shore’. However, it has also been suggested that the name means ‘Upon the Hill’ in the language of the Ewe, the largest ethnic group in Togo.


Tonga simply means ‘south’. It is named in relation to Samoa.

Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad was named by Christopher Columbus in 1498, after the three peaks that surrounded the southern bay. Tobago either comes from the Haitian tambaku, ‘pipe’, or from the local word tabaco, a reference to its crops.


Tunisia is named after the city of Tunis with the suffix -ia adapted from the French name for the protectorate, Tunisie.


Turkey came from the word Turks, though they themselves used the Greek name Anatolia.


Turkmenistan simply means ‘Land of the Turkmen’ from the Oğuz Turks and stan. Their name may mean ‘Turk-like’ from the Persian Tork and the root of mandan ‘to resemble’ or the suffix men may indicate strength.


Tuvalu means ‘eight standing together’ from the Tuvaluan tu ‘to stand up’ and valu ‘eight’. The eight were the eight islands and atolls inhabited (of nine currently) when the first Europeans arrived in the 16thcentury.


Uganda means ‘Land of the Ganda (People)’ from the Swahili u ‘land’ and ganda, the root word and adjective for Buganda, the principle province.


Ukraine is derived from the Russian okraina ‘(land) on the edge’, thus ‘borderland’ from u ‘beside’ and kray ‘edge’ to denote the territory between the open steppes of Russia and Asia to the east and the populated lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the west.

United Arab Emirates

This one’s easy: it’s united Arab emirates. Six of them in 1971 – Abu Dhabi, ‘Ajmān, Dubai, al-Fujairah, Sharjah (ash-Shāriqah), and Umm al Qaywayn – and Ra’s al-Khaymah joined in 1972.

United Kingdom

This is the united kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain, in turn, was used to signify that Britain was bigger than Brittany, in France, to which refugee Britons fled to escape Anglo-Saxon invaders.

United States

The United States of America originally united 13 constituent states, when it was established in 1776; now it is 50, with Alaska and Hawaii being the most recent additions.

As for the America bit – that was first applied to South America in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller (c.1470–c.1521), a German geographer and cartographer, in honour of an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512). Vespucci had made explorations that he’d initially thought to be the east coast of Asia, but later realized he had been to a ‘New World’.


Uruguay may have come from uruguä, the Guaraní for a species of mussel, thus ‘River of Shellfish’, or from uru, a type of bird that lived near the river, gua ‘to proceed from’, and y ‘water’.


The country is named after the Uzbeks, a general name for the Turkic-speaking peoples of the region.


Vanuatu means ‘our land forever’, from the Polynesian/Fijian vanua, ‘land’.


Venezuela, ‘Little Venice’, was named because it reminded the Spaniards Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city.


Viet is the Vietnamese pronunciation of a Chinese character meaning ‘beyond’ or ‘far’ and referred to the peoples living in the southern reaches of the Chinese Empire and the Red River delta. Vietnam means ‘Viets of the South’.


The meaning of Yemen is disputed. Some say that it comes from the Arabic yamīn ‘on the right-hand side’ of the Ka’bah in Mecca or to the right of the Red Sea; others that it comes from yumn ‘good fortune’ or ‘prosperity’; yet others that it is named after Yamin bin Qahtan, a grandson of Noah and progenitor of the South Arabian tribes, or that it is simply al-Yaman ‘the South’.


The country is named after the Zambezi which forms its southern border with Zimbabwe.


Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.



The English language is incredibly rich with centuries of history behind it. This does mean though that a lot of us use phrases today but we have absolutely no idea of why? What do they mean? Where does the saying come from? The meaning and origins of 100 common idioms or phrases are explained in this irreverent journey through the English language. This book takes you from the ancient world to the modern day

The meaning and origins of 100 common idioms or phrases are explained in this irreverent journey through the English language. This book takes you from the ancient world to the modern day and covers almost every aspect of life, it will open your eyes to the rich and fun heritage of the English language, maybe make you think twice but definitely raise a smile. ‘The writings on the wall’ though we don’t want to ‘blow our own trumpet’ so ‘keep your shirt on’, we’ll give you the ‘full monty’, ‘Warts and all’ lowdown on 100 of the most interesting Idioms. This isn’t a ‘damp squib’ that deserves to be ‘left on the shelf.’ and that’s ‘Straight from the horse’s mouth’!

Straight From The Horse’s Mouth is available from the UK in Kindle format from Amazon here and paperback format here.      American Amazon readers can squirm their way through the book in Kindle format here and in paperback format here.   As well as being available through Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Nook, you can also get in on the action on your favourite Apple product by purchasing the book on iBooks by clicking below!

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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13 Responses to How did countries get their names?

  1. Graham says:

    That could be the most comprehensive WordPress post I’ve ever seen. Good effort, that man! Very interesting…I think I like Papua New Guinea 🇵🇬 best. 😄

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Your spectacularly comprehensive list has convinced me to buy you book. If I like it, I shall send it to everyone for Christmas!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mel & Suan says:

    Intriguing isn’t it. But from a non-English world, wonder if it would not be similar!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ankur Mithal says:

    Interesting as usual. However, if France is based on Franck and Afghanistan on Afghans, where did Francks and Afghans get their name from? If Zambia got its name from Zambezi, where did Zambezi get its name from? Pakistan, from what I have read elsewhere, was derived from the Urdu word “Pak” which means pure and intended as a country for the “pure” muslims.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think Franks were the Roman word for certain tribes and after a few centuries this name took over from the original names of the tribes. I do like your line of thought though, there must be origins to them all. I must say, Pakistan was the only one that surprised me as I too thought something similar to you and apparently that is the literal meaning in Urdu and Persian derived languages. Going by the Oxford dictionary, Wikipedia and Guardian newspaper they state that the acronym of Pakistan was coined in a flyer in 1933 by a man called Choudhry Rahmat Ali. We learn something new every day 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Joseph Nebus says:

    That’s a great and amazing and impressive compilation and also the origin of ‘Venezuela’ is exactly what I would have come up with as a joke. It’s a little unsettling.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Trinity says:

    Interesting list! Thanks for sharing it! The name for Norway should actually be under “land features”, however; it took its name from the Nordvegen, a sea fjord and important “highway” – ships, being the main form of transport back then – just south of Avaldsnes, I believe. Avaldsnes was the “birthplace” of the kingdom of Norway…


  7. Pingback: Tracing words back through time | Stephen Liddell

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