The Cultural Tutor

The Cultural Tutor



If Christopher Columbus was the first European to reach America, why is it named after a guy called Amerigo Vespucci instead? And why isn't it called... Ameriga?

As with many of the other continents, it isn't completely clear how the Americas got their name. The most widely accepted theory is that America was named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who travelled there twice in the late 1490s and early 1500s.

But why was it named after him and not Christopher Columbus, who was the first European (well, apart from Leif Erikson and the Vikings) to reach America? Because Columbus thought he was in Asia; Vespucci was the first to theorise that America was an entirely new continent.

But why is it America, then, and not... Ameriga? During the Middle Ages and Renaissance it was common for Europeans to "Latinize" their names. Latin, once the language of Ancient Rome, had become the continental lingua franca. His Latinized name was Americus Vesputius.

But there's more to it. Vespucci wrote highly dramatised accounts of his voyages to the New World, published with illustrations and read all around Europe, bringing him an immense amount of fame and recognition. He was, essentially, a master of PR.

And so in 1507, when the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller made a map of the world, he called this new continent America, in recognition of Americus Vesputius. That was the first time it had been formally called America, and the name stuck thereafter.

Still, not everybody was happy. After Vespucci's death the Spanish historian Bartolomé de las Casas wrote of his "long and premeditated plan" to glorify himself. Vespucci had a terrible reputation for centuries, considered a thief for stealing recognition from Columbus.

But that doesn't tell the full story. Where did Amerigo Vespucci's name come from in the first place? Amerigo may have been an Italianisation of Emeric, an 11th century Hungarian saint - it was very common for people to be named after saints.

And where did Emeric's name come from? He was given a name based on that of his uncle, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry II. Henry in German is Heinrich, and this name may have decended from Amalric, a king of the Visigoths who ruled during the 6th century.

Or, perhaps, from Hermanaric, another Gothic king who ruled in what is now Ukraine during the 4th century AD. But names are hard to trace - they've evolved primarily through oral rather than written history, changing over time as they are passed from generation to generation.

And so beyond this point we enter those parts of history which are shrouded in mystery and can only be reconstructed by speculation. Where did these names come from in the first place? What did they mean? How old, truly, is the name Amerigo, via Emeric, Amalric, and Hermanaric?

Go back far enough and somebody, at some point, simply made up the name of which America, via Amerigo, is the modern descendent. That was thousands of years ago, but this obscure individual - now lost to time - has shaped the course of history and the name of a whole continent.

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