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?"
Germany image via Shutterstock
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.
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.