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Why Are There Different Names for the Same Country?

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.

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 Holly a Symbol of Christmas?
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Santa Claus. A big ol’ red-and-white stocking hung by the fire. Nativity scenes. Most classic Christmas imagery is pretty self-explanatory. Then there’s the holly, genus Ilex, which found its way onto holiday cards through a more circuitous route. 

Christmas is kind of the new kid on the block as far as holly symbolism is concerned. The hardy plant’s ability to stay vibrant through the winter made it a natural choice for pre-Christian winter festivals. The Roman feast of Saturnalia, celebrated at the darkest time of the year, celebrated the god of agriculture, creation, and time, and the transition into sunshine and spring. Roman citizens festooned their houses with garlands of evergreens and tied cheery holly clippings to the gifts they exchanged.

The Celtic peoples of ancient Gaul saw great magic in the holly’s bright "berries" (technically drupes) and shiny leaves. They wore holly wreaths and sprigs to many sacred rites and festivals and viewed it as a form of protection from evil spirits. 

Christianity’s spread through what is now Europe was slow and complicated. It was hardly a one-shot, all-or-nothing takeover; few people are eager to give up their way of life. Instead, missionaries in many areas had more luck blending their messages with existing local traditions and beliefs. Holly and decorated trees were used symbolically by new Christians, just as they’d been used in their pagan days.

Today, some people associate the holly bush not with the story of Jesus’s birth but with his death, comparing the plant’s prickly leaves to a crown of thorns and the berries to drops of blood. 

But most people just enjoy it because it’s cheerful, picturesque, and riotously alive at a time when the rest of the world seems to be still and asleep.

NOTE: Holly is as poisonous as it is pretty. Please keep it away from your kids and pets.

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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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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