Origins of country names

This thread, on the origin of the name Cuba, linked to this page where an “expert” gave origins of all the country names. On the whole, she got most of them right. But there were several errors and omissions. Please allow me to set the record straight.

Actually, al-jazâ’ir is the plural form for three or more islands. The dual, ‘two islands’, would be al-jazîrân.

In Turkish, bulmak means ‘to mix’; the Bulgars were named that for being a mixed people.

Yes, Zhongguo means ‘middle kingdom’, but the English name China came from the Qin dynasty that ruled China about 2000 years ago.

The Arabic for ‘moon’ is qamar. The Comoros flag has the moon on it. The Mountains of the Moon were according to ancient legend in East Africa.

Columbus noted in his journal that while sailing the coast of Cuba they saw “a mosque” (una mezquita). It was some kind of dome-shaped structure that reminded Columbus of a mosque. The Arabic word for ‘dome’ is qubbah.

Egypt (<Greek Aiguptos) is named for the Copts, the indigenous people.

The name comes from the Aestii, the Baltic tribes who once inhabited that region.

It has nothing to do with the Greek word for earth cultivation, nor is it from Arabic. The Persian name for Georgia, gurgan, means ‘wolves’ but it’s derived from a tribal totem in eastern Georgia. Kurj is the Arabic corruption of the Persian name owing to the lack of the letter g in Arabic.

¡No way, José! Hungary comes either from the Ugre tribes, or from the name of the tribal confederation On Ogur ‘ten arrows’ in Turkish, an alliance of ten tribes on the steppes, some of them were Turkish and some were Magyar.

In Arabic, ‘irâq is related to the same root as the words ‘arîq, ‘deep-rooted’ and ‘arâqah, ‘deep-rootedness’, referring to the antiquity of Mesopotamian civilization. It’s an old Arabic name that the British spy Gertrude Bell revived when she concocted the Kingdom of Iraq after the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.

There’s nothing “probably” about it, it definitely comes from the Jordan River. In Hebrew, yordan means ‘going down’, from the verb yarad ‘to go down’ referring to the river’s descent from the mountains all the way down to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on Earth. The Arabic cognate warada means specifically ‘to go down to the water’ since water is always found at the bottom of a declivity.

The Malays immigrated from nearby parts of Indonesia. The name may derive from Tamil malai meaning ‘mountain’, referring to the mountainous parts of Sumatra where the Malays came from.

It’s from Sanskrit mala dvipa ‘garland of islands’, an apt description for the Maldives island chain.

From Koine Greek melita, ‘honey’. St. Paul called it that when he was shipwrecked there. Didn’t you read Acts 28:1? Malta was famous as a producer of honey in ancient times.

From the river Moldova in Romania.

In Arabic, maghrib means both ‘sunset’ and ‘the place of sunset’, i.e. west. al-Maghrib al-aqsá means ‘the farthest west’, but in Arabic the country is simply called “al-Maghrib.” This is the usual theory for the origin of the name. But the more likely explanation is that it comes from Marrakesh, its capital city in the Middle Ages. It is an old Arabic custom to call a country and its capital city by the same name.

Niger actually derives from the Tamashek (Berber language of the Tuareg) gher n-gheren ‘river among rivers’.

The language it comes from is not a Papuan “native language,” but Malay, where the word pepua means ‘curly-haired’. The Malays have straight hair.

The city of Oporto (‘the port’) gave its name to the country, but the -cale or -gal part is from Arabic qal‘ah, ‘fortress’.

The Hebrew name for Yemen is actually Timon. The Arabic name al-Yaman does refer to its being on the right hand yamîn), which is south if you’re oriented facing east; the related word yumn meaning ‘good fortune’ is associated with the idea of the right hand. The Arabic name for Syria, al-Shâm, comes from a word for ‘left hand’, since it’s to the north of Arabia.

A new country is in the making: East Timor. The name Timor comes from the Malay word for ‘east’ (nowadays spelled “timur”) because it’s east of the Malay-speaking lands. So “East Timor” actually means ‘East East’!

I beg to differ.

Aiguptos, the Greek word for Egypt, comes from ancient Egyptian Hy.t-k3-ptH (pronounced “Haykuptah”), which means “the house of the spirit of Ptah” (the Ptah temple in Memphis). This usage goes back at least to the 13th century BC. “Copt” comes from Arab “quipti”, which is also derived from Aiguptos.

Compare this to the way “the White House” is sometimes used to signify the current administration, and, by extention, the political will of America.

Ah, that’s right, aegypt. That’s what I was trying to think of. Thank you.

I read that “Memphis” is just a Greek corruption of the Egyptian word for “city.”

Anyone care to verify/refute that?

Jomo, did you send that info the the Guide so she can update her list?

  • Friedo, (who has nothing to do with guide-site content but works for

Yes, I e-mailed it to her immediately.

To be honest, some of my objections to her list were more in the realm of debatable opinions rather than hard facts — but other items were outright factual blunders on her part.

Did the name of the direction come first or the name of the island? In Filipino, timog means south. Guess where the island of Timor is in relation to the Philippines.

Ms. Burns replied to me

Terminus Est, it would be interesting to know the Proto-Austronesian etymon that gave the word timur to Malay and timog to Tagalog. But it sure is curious to compare the same confusion of east and south that took place in Indo-European languages: Austria (Österreich) means ‘eastern realm’ while Australia means ‘south’. Somehow the Proto-Indo-European root *aus- became English east, German Ost, but also Latin auster, the south wind, austro- ‘southern’. “Formally identical to the Germanic forms … but the semantics are unclear.” (American Heritage Dictionary)

I would prefer to call them Eesti, though.

“finne” is definitely not the Swedish name for the country. It’s the Swedish word for “Finn”, but it’s not altogether PC to use it, especially not about Swedish speakers. However, as long as all Swedish speakers from Finland I know use it about themselves I will also do it.

IIRC, the Hebrew name for Egypt is “Mitzraim” (imperfectly transliterated) with the -im being a suffix indicating that the word is plural. I think this is supposed to refer somehow to the uniting of Upper and Lower Egypt.

Someone with better Hebrew want to help me out?

I wonder if this has happened in other languages - say a word means ‘south’ in one language but it (or a related word) means ‘north’ in another.

Floater, Eesti is indeed the modern Estonian self-designation. Aestii was the name recorded by Tacitus for the Baltic tribes; they were an ancient people related to the Lithuanians and Latvians, unlike the modern Estonians who are a Finnic people.

epolo, you are correct. Mitsrayim ends with the Hebrew dual (not plural) form, so literally it’s ‘two Egypts’. That must be what Ms. Burns was thinking of but got it garbled in her mind. The cognate Arabic name Misr is a singular form. The pseudo-Middle Eastern pop song, “Misirlou” by Nicholas Roubanis, is not a corruption of “Mister Lou” but a Greek corruption of the Turkish word Mïsïrlï meaning ‘Egyptian’.

While the dual is still used in Arabic, in Classical Hebrew it had ceased being used except in a few fossilized forms, mainly parts of the body that come in pairs (‘aynayim, eyes; yodayim, hands; reglayim, feet). Also tsaharayim means ‘noon’—perhaps suggesting its meridional position between the two halves of the day?

Jono Mojo: That’s an impressive and interesting list :slight_smile: . I have a question re: The Bulgars, though. To what does the admixture implied by the word bulmak apply to? To the best of my knowledge the Bulgars were so-called by the late fifth century, some time before the conquest of Slavic ( Antes ) tribes by one ( of supposedly five at the time ) segment of the Bulgars in the seventh century made them a ‘mixed’ people.

Does it refer to earlier admixtures? I know there have been some attempts to link the early Bulgars with the Huns, who certainly ruled a polyglot state.

Any info would be appreciated :slight_smile: .

  • Tamerlane

This is a very interesting thread which I intend to bookmark. I hate to do it, but I have to move this to MPSIMS since there reeally is no general question here.

moderator, GQ

Just an antipodean nitpick.

Joan Pesch doesn’t mention that there was already a place in the Netherlands called Zeeland, and that the Dutch explorers around then tended to call places after localities back in the home country (“New Amsterdam” for example). “Aotearoa” is relatively modern – the Maori tribes, if they ever wanted to refer to areas larger than their own boundaries, named the islands only, not the whole country.

The old name for Memphis is Men-nefer. I have heard of it being refered to as the city of white walls, but I don’t know enough Egyptian to know if the name and the “white walls” description have anything to do with each other. I do know that “nefer” means “beauty” or “beautiful,” as in Nefertiti, “the beautiful one has come.”

(I was born not far from Memphis…Missouri.)

The Two Lands of Egypt are Kemet, the Black Land (where the Nile makes the soil fertile) and Deshret, the red land (origin of the word “desert.”) The Two Lands can also refer to the Seen world (what I assume everyone reading this is in now) and the Unseen world (the realm of the gods and the spirits of the dead).