10 interesting origins of country names from around the world

6) Morocco – probably named after the ‘land of God’


An exotic term among country names, the English word ‘Morocco’ is derived from its Spanish and Portuguese variants Marruecos and Marrocos respectively. These names in turn originate from ‘Marrakesh’ – a Medieval Latin term for the capital city of both Almoravid dynasty and Almohad Caliphate from the middle ages. And quite fascinatingly, the word ‘Marrakesh’ itself comes from the Berber word-combination Mur N’Akush that means ‘land of God’.

As for the full Arabic name of Morocco, the entire term corresponds to al-Mamlakah al-Maghribiyyah, which roughly means the ‘Kingdom of the West’. In that regard, Maghrib literally pertains to the ‘West’, with gharaba meaning ‘(the sun) has set’.

7) Russia – probably named after ‘Vikings’


Yes, Vikings also played their part in the scope of country names. To that end, the word ‘Russia‘ comes from Russi in Medieval Latin – which denoted the people of the land. This in turn is derived from the renowned Rus – a state from the early middle ages (mostly) based in modern-day west Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. It was mainly inhabited by Eastern Slavs and ruled by a Scandinavian minority (that gradually intermixed with the local population). As a matter of fact, the ruling and conquering mercantile class was also called Rus (Greek Rhos and Arabic Rus), and they represented the so-called Varangians, the Greek term for Vikings.

In that regard, the very term ‘Rus’ might have similar roots to that of Ruotsi – the Finnish name for Sweden; and was probably derived from Old Norse Roþrslandi or ‘the land of rowing’. This finally stems from Old Norse roðr or ‘steering oars’.

8) Sierra Leone – probably named after ‘roaring’ mountains


Considered among the grander country names, Sierra Leone literally translates to ‘lion mountains’ (as opposed to ‘mountain lions’), and is directly derived from Sierra Leona, the Spanish version of the Portuguese Serra Leoa. This name was given by Pedro de Sintra, a Portuguese explorer who was seemingly inspired by the mountains of the country in 1462 AD, while sailing by the West African coast.

Now, it still remains a mystery as to why he called these mountains Serra Leoa. Theories range from how these mountain ranges resembled the teeth of lions to how they look like sleeping lions. However, the more interesting hypothesis relates to how the thunders in the mountainsides sounded much like the roaring of the lions. Such natural phenomenons could surely make a grand impression upon the traveler of the day.

9) Spain – possibly named after rabbits


Another one of the elegant-sounding country names, the very term ‘Spain‘ is derived from Anglo-French Espayne, which is turn is derived from Hispania (at least that’s what the Romans called the land). But the origins of this Roman name is still uncertain due to the prevalence of inadequate evidences. For example, according to a hypothesis put forth by Renaissance scholar Antonio de Nebrija, the term Hispania came from the Iberian word Hispalis, which meant the ‘city of the western world’. Other theories pertain to the rather ‘poetic’ side of affairs, with Hispania being possibly derived from the Greek Hesperia ultima or the ‘land of the setting sun’ – given its western-most geographical location in the known old world.

But if we opt for the most interesting theory among many, it would surely relate to the Phoenician (or Punic cognate of Hebrew) term ‘I-Shpania‘, which might have roughly meant the ‘isle of hyraxes’ or even ‘land of rabbits’. This may have been due to the abundance of rabbits in the land, which could have been mistaken as hyraxes from Africa. Now from extant evidences, archaeologists have found Roman coins (from Hadrian’s reign) depicting a female figure with a rabbit at her feet. This is also mirrored by Strabo, who called Spain the ‘land of rabbits’.

10) Turkey – derived from Turks, not your favorite Thanksgiving dish


The very origin of the country name Turkey is simply based on the ethnonym Türk (pertaining to the Turkic people, referred to as Turcae in Roman sources and Tujue in Chinese sources). To that end, the first recorded use of the very word Türk (or Türük) comes from the 8th century AD inscriptions of the Göktürks, written in an Old Turkic script. As for the Anglicized name ‘Turkey’, it is derived from the Medieval Latin term Turchia, and probably was used for the first time in 14th century AD.

Interestingly, Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus mentioned the term Tourkia in his work De Administrando Imperio (from 10th century AD); though in this case, it might have related to the Magyars, as opposed to Turks as we know them.

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1 Comment on "10 interesting origins of country names from around the world"

  1. Rob Caverly-Paxton | April 24, 2017 at 3:41 pm |

    Very interesting article. There are so many nations which bear names of peoples and places long gone. I’ll now have to look up India and Chad…

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