Recently we featured a world map that labels each country not with its name in English, but its name in its own language. That surely proved not just a fascinating linguistic-geographical lesson but, for many, a helpful guide to referring to other lands in a much more sophisticated manner at cocktail parties.
But whatever one’s motives, one ultimately has to wonder: what do all those country names actually mean? Few to none would have emerged as random assemblies of syllables; nearly all must have started as descriptions, to varying degrees of literalness, of the places they name.
Take, for instance, “Place of Abundant Fish,” better known to its people as Panamá and to English-speakers as Panama. Or “Land of Burnt Faces,” which many of us whose faces really would get burned if we took a trip there without sunscreen call Ethiopia. Or “Temple of the Soul of Ptah,” “He that Striveth with God,” and “In the Navel of the Moon,” also known as Egypt, Israel, and Mexico.
These names and many others appear on this world map with country names translated literally into English. “I was disappointed by Spain,” added German geographer Simon Kustenmacher when he tweeted out the map. “‘Land of Many Rabbits’? I expected something related to military…”
Naturally, all manner of arguments immediately erupted beneath Kustenmacher’s tweet: arguments over the source languages used, arguments over etymology, arguments over translation, arguments over interpretation. One commenter suggests that the United States of America, on the map simply labeled “The United States of America,” actually be called “The United States of the Land of Amerigo Vespucci,” the Italian cartographer who inspired the name “America.”
But then, some Americans might feel a very different variety of disappointment not only that their country’s name doesn’t mean “The Land of the Free,” but that the meaning has already been claimed by Thailand. In creative cartography, as in every other pursuit, you can’t please everybody.