The world used to be a place of mystery, bound only by the limits of the imagination. Some civilizations envisioned our planet as a disc standing on a cosmic turtle, while others thought Earth was flat. Yet the mystery lifted throughout the centuries as explorers and merchants traveled the globe, pushing geographical boundaries all the way. The world’s remotest corners are now known to us all, if only virtually.
The ancient Greeks have had a significant influence on the names of geographic features around the world. Greek explorers and merchants traveled far and wide, and their knowledge of geography and cartography allowed them to name many places they encountered. As a result, numerous cities, rivers, mountains, and other landmarks bear Greek names. This isn’t the only case. Some parents opt to name their children after Greek Goddesses and Gods.
But have you ever stopped and wondered where the names you hear on the news might come from? Let’s dig into geographical etymology and find out!
Like many geographical labels, the name Asia goes back to the ancient Greeks. The word was first penned by Herodotus in the 5th century BC as a reference to the Persian Empire and later a common term encompassing all of Anatolia in present-day Turkey. Yet historians remain conflicted as to its origins. One theory suggests the word might stem from the Aegean root Asis, meaning “muddy and silty.” Asia could also derive from the Akkadian word Asu, as in “to rise.”
While originally a Greek concept, though, the idea of Asia as a whole continent is a Roman one that can be traced back to philosopher and author Pliny. Still, the name stuck and spread to the very people inhabiting one of the largest and most diverse continents of all.
We’ve all heard the story of Christopher Columbus landing in the Americas. But as the Genovese explorer searched for a shortcut to Asia, he disembarked in the Bahamas instead. For years to come, Columbus would look desperately for a route to Japan and China without ever realising he had set foot on a yet undiscovered continent. And in his place, this continent would be given the name of another Italian navigator.
Amerigo Vespucci took part in two expeditions during the Age of Discovery. As early as 1501, he claimed to have figured out that the Europeans had discovered a so-called “New World.” This bold assertion inspired the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, who coined the Latinised word America in Vespucci’s honour. Fair to say, however, that this name was essentially arbitrary. Before the Europeans arrived, the natives of Panama and Colombia referred to their homeland as “the continent of life” Abya Yala.
Stretching from the Americas to Europe and Africa, the Atlantic Ocean is second only to the Pacific Ocean in terms of sheer size. But one of the world’s biggest oceans was long a dangerous place to venture into. Strong currents and waters full of creatures of monstrous proportions prevented navigators from sailing high seas for centuries.
Still, the first documented use of the Atlantic moniker dates back millennia. A Greek poet coined the name Atlantikôi pelágei in the 6th century BC, which translates into “Sea of Atlas.” In Greek mythology, Atlas is a Titan condemned to hold up the heavens for all eternity. The name could also point to the legend of Atlantis. According to Plato, this mythical civilisation would have been submerged somewhere in the Atlantic.
The smallest of the world’s oceans, the Arctic was named after its location in the Arctic Circle, whose name stems from the Greek word Arktikos, which means “near the Bear.” In all likelihood, the bear in question is a direct reference to the Ursa Major constellation, also known as the “Great Bear.” Indeed, two of the stars in this constellation have been helping sailors navigate toward the northern star. The first explorer to discover the Arctic is believed to be Pytheas, a Greek geographer and astronomer. But finding the Northwest passage would take many more centuries.
To this day, the Arctic still evokes pristine wilderness and polar perils. The unforgiving Arctic has even played centre stage in many survival games, such as Arctic Awakening. The world’s last frontier also inspired the iGaming industry. New online casinos offer a direct ticket to the Northernmost territories, thus gamers in the Canadian Arctic and beyond may find several Arctic-themed slots among thousands of free machine slots. The newest platforms boast interactive live dealer games and video slots, too. Meanwhile, virtual reality is quickly taking immersion to the next level.
We could go on and on about geographical names, as each place on this planet holds some fascinating origin stories. But hopefully, this snippet has made you curious to delve deeper into the world’s names we find so familiar yet know so little about.
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