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Why Are There Different Names for the Same Country?

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Reader Jonathan wrote in to ask, “Why do we call other countries by names that they do not use themselves? Where did these names come from and why do we use them?"

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To Americans, the European country that gave the world Volkswagens, the Scorpions and World War II is Germany. But in Germany, they call the place Deutschland. The Spanish call Germany Alemania, the Poles call it Niemcy and the Thai call it ???????. Each of these other countries likewise has a name for itself within its own borders - an endonym - that’s different from what we call it in the U.S. and from what other countries call it - an exonym. Why all the different names if we’re talking about the same places?

Despite the fact that we give them special treatment in English and capitalize them - which not all languages do - place names aren’t all that special. Without one global language, speakers of a given language are going to have their own word for a certain part of the world. These names are just words, and like any other words, they’ve got histories and baggage and are subject to the vagaries of linguistic evolution and even sometimes the mean-spiritedness of the people who use them.

Some place names simply come from the people who inhabit the land. Germany, for example, was Germany to some folks long before the country united and called itself Deutschland. Germany’s central position in western Europe means that it has historically shared borders with many different groups, and many languages use the name of the first Germanic tribe its speakers came in contact with as a name for the whole region. The Romans named a chunk of land east of the Rhine River and north of the Danube River Germania after the first Germanic tribe they heard about from the nearby Gauls. The root of the name is from the Gauls, who called the tribe across the river the Germani, which might have meant “neighbor” or maybe “men of the forest.” English borrowed the name in turn and anglicized the ending to get Germany. 

Meanwhile, the Alemanni, a southern Germanic tribe that lived around modern-day Switzerland and Alsace prompted the French and Spanish to name the land Allemagne and Alemanía, respectively. Similarly, the Turkish name for Greece, Yunanistan, derives from the Ionians, the Greek tribe that established settlements in Asia Minor and had early contact with the Turks.

Global "Telephone"

For other place names, you can blame the global game of cultural “telephone” that we’ve been playing for thousands of years. As explorers traipsed around the globe and discovered new places, they often had no idea what to call them, so they asked the locals. The names got passed along on trade routes or through diplomacy, spoken and heard by people who didn’t share the same language. Somewhere along the way, a name got garbled or misunderstood or even purposefully changed to accommodate the sounds of one language or another.

That's how Nipon became Japan. When Marco Polo was in China, he learned about an island that was called Cipangu in one of the Chinese dialects. He took the name home to Italy, where it got corrupted into Giappone. Portuguese traders in Asia learned of the same island from the Malay, who called it Japang or Jepang. They brought the word back to Europe and turned it into Japao. Eventually, one or both of these made their way into English as Japan.

Still other place names are a matter of perception. Almost every country that speaks a Slavic language derives its name for Germany from the Slavic nemtsi or nemetes. Etymologists think this comes from the word nemy, or “mute,” and that the ancient Slavs called the neighboring Germanic tribes mutes because they couldn’t understand their language. Macedonia, which can refer to the former Yugoslavian republic or a number of other things, is derived from the ancient Greek Makedones, which the southern Greeks used to refer to the northern part of the region. Rooted in makednos (“long, tall”), it refers either to the area’s mountains or the tallness of its inhabitants.

These are just some of the more common methods by which exonyms are born. Exploring the origins of every place name would keep us here all day, so if there are specific ones you want to learn about, the Online Etymology Dictionary is a good place to start for a quick and simple explanation.

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Big Questions
Why is Friday the 13th Considered Unlucky?
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Today, people around the globe will feel uneasy about getting out of bed, leaving their homes, or going about their normal daily routines, all because of a superstition. These unfortunate folks suffer from “paraskavedekatriaphobia,” a common neurosis familiar to us all: the fear of Friday the 13th. But just where did this superstitious association come from, and how did it catch on?

The truth is that no one is absolutely sure where the idea that Friday the 13th is unlucky originated. Donald Dossey, the founder of the Stress Management Center and Phobia Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, suspects the fear can be traced back to a Norse myth about 12 gods who had a dinner at Valhalla—the fabled hall where legendary Norse heroes feasted for eternity after they died—that was interrupted by a 13th guest, the evil and mischievous god Loki. According to legend, Loki tricked Höðr (the blind god of winter and son of Odin, the supreme god in Norse mythology) into shooting his brother Baldr (the benevolent god of summer who was also a son of Odin) with a magical spear tipped with mistletoe—the only substance that could defeat him. Thus the number 13 was branded as unlucky because of the ominous period of mourning following the loss of such powerful gods by this unwanted 13th guest.

For whatever reason, among many cultures, the number 12 emerged throughout history as a "complete" number: There are 12 months in a year, 12 signs of the zodiac, 12 Gods of Olympus, 12 sons of Odin, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 Jyotirlingas or Hindu shrines where Shiva is worshipped, 12 successors of Muhammad in Shia Islam, and 12 tribes of Israel. In Christianity, Jesus was betrayed by one of his 12 Apostles—Judas—who was the 13th guest to arrive for the Last Supper. Surpassing the number 12 ostensibly unbalances the ideal nature of things; because it is seen as irregular and disrespectful of a sense of perfection, the number 13 bears the stigma of misfortune and bad luck we know today.

WHY FRIDAY?

Friday joins in the mix mostly because all of the early accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion agree that it took place on Friday—the standard day for crucifixions in Rome. As Chaucer noted in The Canterbury Tales, "And on a Friday fell all this mischance." Yet perpetuating Friday as an unlucky day in America came from the late 19th-century American tradition of holding all executions on Fridays; Friday the 13th became the unluckiest of days simply because it combined two distinct superstitions into one. According to the Oxford University Press Dictionary of Superstitions, the first reference to Friday the 13th itself wasn’t until 1913. (So despite actually occurring on Friday, October 13, 1307, the popular notion that the Friday the 13th stigma comes from the date on which the famed order of the Knights Templar were wiped out by King Philip of France is just a coincidence.)

The repercussions of these phobias reverberated through American culture, particularly in the 20th century. Most skyscrapers and hotels lack a 13th floor, which specifically comes from the tendency in the early 1900s for buildings in New York City to omit the unlucky number (though the Empire State Building has a 13th floor). Street addresses sometimes skip from 12 to 14, while airports may skip the 13th gate. Allegedly, the popular Friday the 13th films were so-named just to cash in on this menacing date recognition, not because the filmmakers actually believed the date to be unlucky.

So, is Friday the 13th actually unlucky? Despite centuries of superstitious behavior, it largely seems like psychological mumbo jumbo. (One 1993 study seemed to reveal that, statistically speaking, Friday the 13th is unlucky, but the study's authors told LiveScience that though the data was accurate, "the paper was just a bit of fun and not to be taken seriously." Other studies have shown no correlation between things like increased accidents or injuries and Friday the 13th.)

And Friday the 13th isn't a big deal in other cultures, which have their own unlucky days: Greeks and Spanish-speaking countries consider Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day, while Italians steer clear of Friday the 17th. So today, try to rest a little easy—Friday the 13th may not be so unlucky after all.

Additional Source: 13: The Story of the World’s Most Popular Superstition.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
Why Do Ghosts Say ‘Boo’?
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People have screamed "boo," or at least some version of it, to startle others since the mid-16th century. (One of the earliest examples documented by the Oxford English Dictionary appeared in that 1560s poetic thriller, Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame.) But ghosts? They’ve only been yowling "boo" for less than two centuries.

The etymology of boo is uncertain. The OED compares it with the Latin boare or the Greek βοᾶν, meaning to “cry aloud, roar, [or] shout.” Older dictionaries suggest it could be an onomatopoeia mimicking the lowing of a cow.

Whatever the origins, the word had a slightly different shade of meaning a few hundred years ago: Boo (or, in the olden days, bo or bu) was not used to frighten others but to assert your presence. Take the traditional Scottish proverb “He can’t say bo to a goose,” which for centuries has been a slick way to call somebody timid or sheepish. Or consider the 1565 story Smyth Whych that Forged Hym a New Dame, in which an overconfident blacksmith tries to hammer a woman back into her youth, and the main character demands of his dying experiment: “Speke now, let me se / and say ones bo!”

Or, as Donatello would put it: “Speak, damn you, speak!”

But boo became scarier with time. After all, as the OED notes, the word is phonetically suited “to produce a loud and startling sound.” And by 1738, Gilbert Crokatt was writing in Presbyterian Eloquence Display’d that, “Boo is a Word that's used in the North of Scotland to frighten crying children.”

(We’re not here to question 250-year-old Scottish parenting techniques, but over at Slate, Forrest Wickman raises a good point: Why would anybody want to frighten a child who is already crying?)

In 18th century Scotland, bo, boo, and bu would latch onto plenty of words describing things that went bump in the night. According to the Dictionary of the Scots Language, the term bu-kow applied to hobgoblins and “anything frightful,” such as scarecrows. The word bogey, for “evil one,” would evolve into bogeyman. And there’s bu-man, or boo-man, a terrifying goblin that haunted man:

Kings, counsellors, and princes fair,

As weel's the common ploughman,

Hae maist their pleasures mix'd wi' care,

An' dread some muckle boo-man.

It was only a matter of time until ghosts got lumped into this creepy “muckle boo-man” crowd.

Which is too bad. Before the early 1800s, ghosts were believed to be eloquent, sometimes charming, and very often literary speakers. The spirits that appeared in the works of the Greek playwrights Euripides and Seneca held the important job of reciting the play’s prologue. The apparitions in Shakespeare’s plays conversed in the same swaying iambic pentameter as the living. But by the mid-1800s, more literary ghosts apparently lost interest in speaking in complete sentences. Take this articulate exchange with a specter from an 1863 Punch and Judy script.

Ghost: Boo-o-o-oh!

Punch: A-a-a-ah!

Ghost: Boo-o-o-o-oh!

Punch: Oh dear ! oh dear ! It wants’t me!

Ghost:  Boo-o-o-o-oh!

It’s no surprise that boo’s popularity rose in the mid-19th century. This was the age of spiritualism, a widespread cultural obsession with paranormal phenomena that sent scores of people flocking to mediums and clairvoyants in hopes of communicating with the dead. Serious scientists were sending electrical shocks through the bodies of corpses to see if reanimating the dead was possible; readers were engrossed in terrifying Gothic fiction (think Frankenstein, Zastrozzi, and The Vampyre); British police departments were reporting a heightened number of ghost sightings as graveyards were plagued by “ghost impersonators,” hoaxsters who camped out in cemeteries covered in white robes and pale chalk. It’s probably no coincidence that ghosts began to develop their own vocabulary—limited as it may be—during a period when everybody was curious about the goings-on within the spirit realm.

It may also help that boo was Scottish. Many of our Halloween traditions, such as the carving of jack-o’-lanterns, were carried overseas by Celtic immigrants. Scotland was a great exporter of people in the middle of the 1800s, and perhaps it’s thanks to the Scots-Irish diaspora that boo became every ghost’s go-to greeting.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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