Where Does The Name America Come From?

A vintage world map.
A vintage world map.

America or the Americas is a name used to refer to the landmass constituting the continents of North and South America, which form the largest landmass in the Western Hemisphere, and it is also known as the New World. Together with the associated islands, they cover approximately 8% of the total surface area of the Earth. From north to south, America extends to cover a distance of 8,700 miles, and the ecology and climate vary significantly from the arctic tundra in Alaska, Greenland, and northern Canada to tropical rainforests in South and Central America. The first humans to settle in the Americas were from Asia, possibly between 42,000 and 17,000 years ago. It was then followed by a second wave of migration from Asia, and subsequently the last migration of the Inuit people in about 3500 BC. These migrations completed the settlement of the Indigenous people of America. The first non-European to settle in the Americas were the Norse explorers, but later the Spanish exploration led by Christopher Columbus between 1492 and 1522 led to permanent contacts of Europeans which subsequently led to exploration, conquest, and colonization of the Americas. The Americas host more than 1 billion people and about 2/3 live in the United States, Mexico, and Brazil.

The Origin of the Name America

Amerigo Vespucci, like Christopher Columbus, made his voyage between 1499 and 1502. However, unlike Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci recorded his voyage and his account, which was published around 1503, and was widely read in Europe. It was Vespucci who first realized that West Indies and Brazil were not the easternmost part of Asia, but was a different continent as it had been presumed by Columbus. In his writings, he refers to the new continent as Novus Mundus, a Latin word for New World. After his discovery, the maps were drawn once again, although it was not clear how big or the shape of the New World and most maps at the time were inaccurate and occasionally contradictory. In 1507, Martin Waldseemüller who was a German cartographer produced the map of the world and named it the Universal cosmography. His drawing was largely based on the published travel documents of Amerigo Vespucci. At the time, countries were regarded as feminine, and therefore, Waldseemüller adopted a Latinized feminine name of Amerigo for the new continent as “America.” All other cartographers used the name which has remained to this day as America.

Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci was a navigator and a cartographer who was born in 1454. He was born in the Republic of Florence, which is present-day Italy. He sailed for Portugal between 1501 and 1502, and he managed to demonstrate that West Indies and Brazil were not the easternmost part of Asia as intimated by Columbus. Vespucci showed that it was a different landmass and named it the New World. Ferdinand, the king of Spain in 1508, crowned Vespucci as the principal navigator of Spain and he was commissioned to establish a school for navigators to modernize and standardized navigation practices to be used by the sea captains of Iberia to explore the world. He managed to develop a fairly accurate but simple technique of establishing the latitudes which were later improved by more accurate chronometers. Because of his discoveries, he was granted Spanish citizenship. It is believed that Amerigo Vespucci made four voyages, and later died at his home in Seville, Spain on February 22nd, 1512.

The Theory of Nicaraguan Mountain range

Another theory which was proposed by Thomas Belt in 1874 states that the name America is derived from the Amerrique mountains located in the present-day country of Nicaragua. In the indigenous American language, "Amerrique" was the original name given to the prominent mountain ranges. Similarly, in the Mayan language, the word "Amerrique” refers to a country of strong winds or the land of the wind. It is believed that the indigenous people shared the term with Columbus and his crew members, particularly in the 4th voyage because this is the location where Columbus and his people managed to reach. It is believed that the name quickly spread by oral means throughout different parts of Europe and possibly to cartographers such as Waldseemüller, who used the name in the maps.

Richard Amerike

It has been suggested that the name America was borrowed from the surname "Amerike" or “ap Meryk” and became widely used in the maps that were common in Britain, although the maps have since been lost. The name Richard ap Meryk was anglicized and became Richard Amerike or Ameryk. He was a rich merchant from Britain and served as a sheriff at Bristol. Many historians have suggested that Amerike owned the ship Matthew which was used by John Cabot in 1497 on his voyage to explore Northern America. The idea that Amerike was the owner or the chief supporter of Cabot has become so popular, particularly in the 21st century. However, historians disagree because there is no evidence showing that America indeed funded the voyage of Cabot in 1497.

Copy of the Original Map 

In 2003, the US Library of Congress purchased the only copy of the original map drawn by Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 at the price of $10 million. For more than 350 years the map had been housed in Wolfegg Castle which was built in the 16th century and is located in the Southern part of Germany. The map was originally owned by Johann Schöner who was a cartographer, astronomer, and geographer in the 14th century. The 1507 map was believed to be lost until it was discovered in 1901 in Waldburg-Wolfegg castle. The German Federal government and the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg issued the export license for the unique map so that the United States Library of Congress could obtain it. Currently, the map is displayed in the Library of Congress at the Thomas Jefferson Building. In 2004, the official ceremony was held which was attended by representatives of both governments of the United States and Germany that marked the handing over of the map to the US.


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