What’s in a name?

Here’s an experiment in the obvious: take a map of the world and read the names of countries in any one of the continents… Britain, Germany, France, Spain… China, Japan, Korea… Zimbabwe, Sudan, Nigeria… America, Canada, Mexico…

See how easy it is to roll right over them?

This is what I mean; we are attuned to ignore the obvious (Sherlock Holmes would be proud of this deduction). But every once in a while we turn our head, squint our eyes and suddenly a word we have read or typed hundreds of times looks like a foreign language to us.

Why is that?

I’m an English speaker, and I can cope with French, but I can’t easily read Middle English. Yet many of the words I use on a daily basis are mutants of the English linguistic past – let alone the influence of German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Gaelic and Hebrew among the many other languages that contribute to modern English.

America, Amerigo, and Ap Meric

Yesterday I picked up a book that I had read a few years ago, The True Story of How America Got Its Name by Rodney Broome. It’s an interesting volume and as I skimmed it, I got to thinking about the many variations of the origin of “America,” as an appellation for the continent.

Nearly everyone has heard of Amerigo Vespucci, and how a friendly mapmaker gifted his first name to the continent. Well, maybe – but why use a first name, usually reserved for royals, when surnames were the norm for everyone else?

So Broome supposes that maybe it wasn’t Vespucci’s first name, but someone else’s last name on the map. Interestingly, Vespucci was on board a Spanish ship with an aggressive captain who readily attacked English vessels. At the same time an English vessel disappeared, carrying the famous explorer John Cabot in whose possession was a map illustrating the American continent and inscribed with the name of Richard Amerike (or Ap Meric, as it is in Welsh).

Call in NCIS, this has the makings of a mystery! Did the map change hands? Was Amerike’s surname on the map first? Could be.

America, by any other name…

If you search far enough there are a number of other origins for the name “America” that pop up.

Some claim that the Scandinavian Norsemen who came exploring the American continent in pre-Colombian times brought with them a phrase for this new western land, “Ommerike” that sounds roughly like America.

Other possibilities suggest the Mayans had a similar sounding phrase for their lands.

So what’s the truth?

Names that sound similar and move from one language to another can become mixed and “owned” by both cultures. Imagine the interesting spelling variations you can get from an answering machine if the caller’s voice isn’t clear!

In my opinion there is validity to the connection to Richard Ap Meric. As Broome contends, maps were precious at that time in history, particularly in areas previously unexplored by Europeans. If Mr. Vespucci got a hold of it, why wouldn’t he want to cash in on a similar sounding name? After all, exploring the new world was all about finding gold, glory and gathering fame back home!

The possibilities have merit… or is that Meric?


  1. I know this is a slightly different subject but I’d also like to suggest a book Made in America by Bill Bryson. As a linguist, he explains the origins of the American-English language (well some of it – he can’t explain every single word – that would take FOREVER). It’s a book I enjoyed because I love language but it can be difficult to get through if one is not interested in such things:)


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