Where Did the Continents Get Their Names From?

The seven continent model of the world.
The seven continent model of the world.

There are generally considered to be seven continents in the world: Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Antarctica, and Oceania. North America and South America are sometimes considered to be one continent known simply as The Americas. Similarly, Europe and Asia are sometimes grouped together to form Eurasia. There have been many discussions on the number of continents in the world, but few discussions about how the continents were named in the first place.


This name can be attributed to the Romans who referred to what is present-day Tunisia as “Africa terra.” Africa terra can be translated to mean “land of the Afri” (plural) or “land of the Afer” (singular). There are several theories about the origin of the word “Afer.” Some of them say that it originates from the Greek language, others Latin, and there are also other theories.

The name began expanding to include a larger area than Tunisia when several provinces such as Tripolitania (a former Libyan province) were added to the Diocesis of Africa. Further spreading of the name was facilitated by the Europeans during the middle ages in a time when they were seeking to increase their knowledge of Africa.


The origins of this name come from the Latin word “Europa,” which traces its origins to the Greek language. One school of thought argues that the name traces back to ancient Greek mythology. In Greek myth, Europa was the daughter of a Phoenician king by the name of Agenor or Phoenix. Europa fell in love with Zeus and had three sons.

Another theory, as suggested by Ernest Klein, suggests that the name originates from the Sumerian root “Ereb.” Ereb translates to “darkness” or even “descent.” Ernest argues that Sumerians used that name to refer to the relative position Europe had to Mesopotamia, Anatolia, the Levantine Coast, and the Bosporus. Therefore, the word “Ereb” would be used to refer to Europe as a land where the sun sets or a more generic name of “Western Land.”

Greeks have used the word “Europe” to refer to Greece, that is, the area they inhabited. In modern times, what they called Europe translates to the area between Former Yugoslavia and Turkey. Over time, it came to refer to the whole of Europe as it is known today.


The origin of this name is fairly simple. Oceania stems from the English word “ocean” which refers to a large water body. However, it ultimately comes from the Greek word “Okeanos” which means a great water body (sea or river) surrounding the earth.


This name comes from the word Ἀσία’ from Ancient Greek. Initially, it was used to refer to the eastern bank of the Aegean Sea but was later used to refer to the region of Anatolia. Before its extensive use, the Romans used it to refer to the Lydian area. The deeper meaning could have been from the Aegean word “Asis” meaning muddy or the Semitic “Asu” meaning light or rising.


North and South both share the name America. Some suggest that the name originates from Italian traveler Amerigo Vespucci. Cartographers chose to honor him since he was first to believe that the whole region was a continent. Eventually, North America adopted the name. Another person posited that the name originated from Amerike or ap Meryk, according to a manuscript he saw but there is little evidence to support the theory.


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