Marshmallows, marvelous, meaningful, and mournful: the one element these things all have in common is that, along with 18 countries on our globe, they all start with the letter ‘M’.
Where does ‘M’ come from? As a most important letter and the 13th in the English alphabet, ‘M’ is related to the Semitic mem and also to mu in the Greek language. Some experts think the Semitic form of the letter might actually come from a very early sign used in human communication that represented waves on the water.
Of course, not all of the countries on Earth that start with the letter ‘M’ are located next to large bodies of water, but some certainly are. Here is a look at where each country starting with the letter M got its name, and a very brief look at their history.
The countries beginning with the letter M:
- Marshall Islands
The name Macedonia comes from both Greek and Latin in the 1300s. The Greek word Makedones is said to mean “the highlanders” or “the tall ones.” This word is related to a similar one, Makednos which means “long” or ‘tall” in Greek.
The country was once part of the state of Yugoslavia, and it chose its name when it declared independence in 1991. Macedonia made a significant move in 2019 changing its name from the Republic of Macedonia to the Republic of North Macedonia, or North Macedonia for short. State spokesman Mile Boshnjakovski reported that the country’s citizens will continue to be called Macedonians, and the language Macedonian, not North Macedonian, however. The name change is said to end a long-running dispute between Greece and Macedonia since Greece has a region called Macedonia, something that will pave the way for North Macedonia to be considered for membership in NATO.
The origins of Madagascar’s name are a bit of a mystery. The capital of the country’s northern region, Diego Suarez, is named after the Portuguese explorer Diego Diaz who came upon the country in 1500. But the etymology of the name "Madagascar" is not so easily explained.
Some think the name comes from the 12th century King Idrisi of Sicily drew a map of the area that included an island called Gesira al malai. In Greek, this is Malai Gesira. Some linguists think the name morphed through history from Gésira Malai to Malaigésira, then to Madaig(é)scra, and Madégescar, and finally, Madégascar.
Language is certainly complicated!
Located in southern Africa, Malawi’s name is said to mean “fire flames” in reference to the sun rising over Lake Malawi, an image which can now be found on the country’s flag. The name goes back to the Kingdom of Maravi which was present in the area during the 15th century.
Islam had already spread through the region by the time Christian missionaries arrived in the mid-19th century. Soon after the missionaries came the establishment of Malawi as a British colony. It gained its independence in 1963, and today Malawi remains part of the British Commonwealth.
Formerly known as "Malaya," Malaysia got its name in 1963 when the Federation of Malaya gained the states of Singapore, Sabah, and Sarawak. Singapore left this federation of states only two years later. Malaysia is now a federation of 13 states, located in two geographical regions separated by the South China Sea. The region was previously governed by the British as of the 18th century and named Malaya by them, but it was known as Tanah Melayu, meaning "Malay Land," by local citizens.
Regional sultans in Malaya gave over power to the British crown during the 1700s and 1800s. The region then became known as British Malaya, followed by the Malayan Union, the Federation of Malaya, and finally, Malaysia as it is known today.
An island nation in the Indian Ocean, the Maldives’ name could have multiple origins. Some scholars say it comes from Tamil, meaning "Mountain Islands." Others say the name comes from Sanskrit and means "Garland of islands" or "Island of women." If an Arabic etymology is possible, the name could mean "palace."
The Maldives were introduced to Islam in the 12th century and passed through several colonial reigns, beginning with the Portuguese in 1558, the Dutch in 1654, and then the British in 1887. They gained their independence in 1968 as a Sultanate, but became a Republic.
Once called French Sudan, Mali’s name comes from the Bambara word for the hippopotamus. Since the country is found in a landlocked area of Western Africa, this is fitting. It takes its name from the Mali Empire which thrived here from 1235 to 1670.
The land we know today as Mali became part of French West Africa in the late 19th century, which is when it became known as French Sudan. In 1958, it became an autonomous state still affiliated with France. A few short years later the country cut ties with the French.
Malta’s name may be derived from the Latin word Melite or the Phoenician word Melita. These mean "place of refuge," coming from the word Malat which means ‘he escaped’.
As a small island country located in the Mediterranean Sea not far from the island of Sicily, Malta has been a strategic archipelago that has been ruled by many different foreigners in the fight to dominate the Mediterranean. These have included the Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Phoenicians, Normans, Sicilians, Aragonese, French, British, Swabians, and Hospitallers. They achieved independence from the British, the last colonial power to rule the island, in 1964, and they remain part of the Commonwealth.
The Marshall Islands is a sovereign nation that was once under US control. The country consists of a chain of volcanic islands along with coral atolls located in the Pacific Ocean as part of the continent of Oceania, and got its English name when the British naval captain John William Marshall sailed through the area in 1788 with convicts headed to live in New South Wales. For thousands of years before this, Micronesian people lived on the islands, which they first discovered around 2000 BCE and named Aelon Kein Ad, which means "our islands."
It is predicted by the UN that the Marshall Islands will be completely submerged in ocean water by the year 2030 due to the effects of global warming. A German protectorate before World War I, the islands were seized by Japan who administered the territory until World War II, when they were passed on to the United States. Since 1983, the Islands have been independent in free association with the US, who remain responsible for external defence and provide financial assistance.
The Republic of Mauritania is a country in northwest Africa on the continent’s Atlantic coast named after the foregone Berber kingdom of Mauretania, which was around during the Roman Empire. This nation plays an important role as both a geographic and cultural connection between North Africa Maghrib region and western Sub-Saharan Africa.
Mauritania was a French colony starting in the mid-19th century, but it was not until the 1900s that France began any efforts to assert control over the people of the territory. And even then, their presence and work to improve the colony was minimal. Mauritania reached its independence in 1960.
Unlike some countries on this list that have been occupied by civilizations for millennia, Mauritius was largely uninhabited for much of human history. The country got its name in the late 1500s when the Dutch took possession of it and named it Mauritius after then-governor Maurice of Nassau. It was difficult for the Dutch to settle the island, however, and they left it to be run by pirates in 1710.
The French took control of the Island and named it Île de France, and they had an easier time colonizing the area. The British captured the island in 1810, renaming it Mauritius again, but, interestingly, did not change the laws and language of the island from the French system that was in place. In 1968, Mauritius became an independent state within the Commonwealth.
The Aztec people settled the Valley of Mexico in the 1300s AD. Before them, the land that is today called Mexico was occupied by various tribes and empires that rose and fell throughout history. The Aztecs actually never called themselves by this name, however, but rather referred to themselves as the Tenocha or Mexica people. The area this group settled in was called Anahuac, meaning “land surrounded by water,” which was fitting as the Aztecs built their empire on swampy marshland that others didn’t really want but which was strategically placed among other warring tribes in order to keep their own community safe.
The word Mexico is then thought to have come from the name Mexica. The country is officially called the Federation of Mexican States, gaining its independence from Spanish rule in 1821.
The origins of Micronesia’s name are relatively easy to guess at first glance. “Micro” means small, derived from Greek and Latin, and "nesos" is Greek for "island." Hence, put the two together with the "-sia" suffix meaning "state of," and you have "small islands," Micronesia. This is very fitting for a country made up of upwards of 600 islands and islets located in the western Pacific Ocean as part of the Caroline Islands archipelago.
The history of Micronesia is tied to that of their neighbour to the east, the Marshall Islands. A German territory since purchasing them from Spain in 1899, Japan took control during the First World War, and they were given to the United States following Japan's loss in World War II. Since 1986 they have been in free association with the US, just like the Marshall Islands.
Landlocked in eastern Europe, the Republic of Moldova is surrounded by Ukraine and Romania and is named after the Moldova River which runs through it. Moldova is a Slavic term derived from the word for spruce or fir trees. Its ending, "Ova," refers to ownership.
Though being a crucial part of the Romanian principality of Moldavia, Moldova's popular history is dominated by the Ottoman and Russian Empires, and of course the Soviet Union. The country reached independence when the Union fell, and it is known formally known as the Republic of Moldova.
Monaco’s name, like that of many countries, comes from Greek roots. In the 6th century BCE, Monaco was inhabited by Phocaean Greeks. The Ligurians, who were ancient Indo-European people from what is today north-western Italy around the 2nd millennium BCE, referred to the colony as Monikos, meaning "single house." This is fitting, as Monaco has now the second smallest sovereign state in the world, and has been ruled by one family, the Grimaldis, for the last 700 years.
Officially the Principality of Monaco, this tiny country on the coast of the Mediterranean is a remaining vestige of the time when city-states were a common feature of the historic European political landscape. While other city-states were unable to maintain their autonomy in the face of various encroaching Empires, Monaco has remained independent for the most part of its long history.
Mongolia is named for its people who are Mongols, a traditionally nomadic group of tribal people from Central Asia living on the Mongolian Plateau. Known for being elite horsemen and women, and for herding sheep, goats, and cattle, Mongolians have enjoyed life for centuries in the area’s rich grasslands.
The Mongolian Empire ruled as the second-largest kingdom of all time, beginning with Genghis Khan in 1206, and falling in 1368. Today, the region of Mongolia is divided between the independent state bearing its name, and China, a Special Administrative Region also known as Mongolia.
The term "Mongol" being used to refer to people from Mongolia is somewhat controversial. This is because many places outside of Mongolia have used this word to refer to people who have Down Syndrome for well over 100 years. This was an error in history begun by John Langdon Down in the 1860s. The term should be used to refer to people from Mongolia, and not to refer to people with Down Syndrome or with other intellectual disabilities.
Montenegro is a small country bordering the Adriatic Sea in Europe. It gets its name from Mount Lovćen, a mountain located in the southwest of the country. Montenegro means "black mountain."
Montenegro was part of the country of Yugoslavia, and upon its 1989 dissolution it allied with Serbia to contest the partition of Slovenia and Croatia. It remained in association with Serbia, the so-called "third Yugoslavia," but its relations with Serbia soured quickly. In 2006, the two states separated.
Today, Morocco is known for its warm people and impressive Sahara Desert. It was once considered to be the "Land of the Gods," or a "sacred land," which is the meaning of the country’s name. The word Morocco comes from the Berber word Amerruk or Amurakuc.
The Kingdom of Morocco, which it is officially named, was briefly a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956. Today, it remains the only monarchy in Northern Europe.
The name Mozambique is Swahili in origin, which is a language and culture that resulted from the intermingling of African populations with Arab traders around the 8th century. This word comes from Musa al Big, which was the name of an ancient Arab chief or sheik who is said to have lived in the area.
Mozambique was a Portuguese colony by the mid-19th century, and it gained independence in 1975.