Ask Dr. Universe – Naming Places

Dear Dr. Universe: How do people name continents or places on earth? Thank you. – Lila Grace, 8, Virginia

Dear Lila Grace,

Our world is full of so many different places. They get their names in lots of different ways.

One way a place might get a name is from the person who explored it. The Americas are named after an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci. But Amerigo wasn’t the first person to explore these continents.

There were already people living there when he arrived. Still, “America” was named after Amerigo. For the most part, people name things because they are claiming possession of a place. Because of that, sometimes the original names of places are lost or erased.

That’s what I found out from my friend Theresa Jordan, a history professor who teaches a geography course at Washington State University.

I also found out that Native Americans in the northeast of North America were already calling the place they lived “Turtle Island.” The Guna people, the first to live in Panama and Columbia, called the Americas “Abya Yala.”

The names of places can also come from stories, legends, or myths. “Europe” comes from a Greek myth about a princess called Europa. One of Jupiter’s moons is also named after Europa.

“Asia” originated from another Greek story about the east coast of the Aegean Sea, which is near the place we today call Greece. We still don’t really know the origin of the name “Africa.”

Meanwhile, some places are named after leaders or people in power. Sometimes we will take a person’s full name and put a twist on it. For example, the state of Georgia is named after the English King George the II. Louisiana is named after Louis XIV, king of France. Washington state was named after our first president, George Washington.

Believe it or not, some people have different names for the same place. For example, people in the U.S. might call a country South Korea, but the people who live in South Korea call their country Hanguk.

People in Japan or China might call it Chosŏn. It’s a good reminder that people look at the world through different lenses, or worldviews.

In fact, if we looked at maps around the world they might look very different depending on where were visiting. In a classroom in China, you might find that the country is in the middle of the map rather than to the left as it is in U.S. classroom maps.

Jordan said it’s great to think about questions like the one you’ve asked. In fact, historians and researchers think about these kinds of questions a lot.

“Who is writing the history? Who’s history are you reading?” Jordan said. “As historians we always have to be asking those questions.”

Those are good questions for all of us to ask, too. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll study history or geography to help us understand more about the past and work to help shape our future.

Dr. Universe