We have taken time to put together this Meaning And Origin Of Names of list of every country in the world – using the list of countries as determined by the United Nation.
From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, discover surprising and intriguing language facts from around the globe.
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Lesotho translates approximately into ‘the land of the Sotho’.
Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.
The name Libya comes from the Greek name given to Northwest Africa; Libya was the daughter of Epaphus and Memphis in Greek mythology.
Liechtenstein was named after the Liechtenstein family from Liechtenstein Castle in Lower Austria. The name means ‘bright stone’.
The meaning of Lithuania is not known, although it has been suggested that it may be derived from the Latin litus ‘shore’, a reference to the Baltic coast or from the small River Letavka.
Luxembourg is originally found as Luciliburhuc, meaning ‘little castle’.
Macedonia ultimately comes from the ancient Greek root mak, ‘tall, high’, possibly describing tall people living there.
The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.
Malawi comes from Maravi people. Their name means ‘flames’, which may be taken from their habit of burning off dead grass to prepare the land for cultivation.
Malaysia probably comes from the Tamil words malai (mountain) and ur (city).
The name probably comes from the Sanskrit mālādvīpa ‘garland of islands’ from mālā ‘garland’ or ‘necklace’ and dvīpa.
Mali may come from the Malinké people, also known as the Mandinka, who are closely related to other Mande-speaking peoples who trace their ancestry to the Mali Empire. It has also been suggested that the name comes from the Mande word for ‘hippopotamus’.
Malta may be derived from the ancient Greek melitta, ‘bee’
Famous for its honey in former times, Malta may be derived from the ancient Greek melitta, ‘bee’, which produces meli, ‘honey’.
- Marshall Islands
The islands are named after the British explorer John Marshall, who explored them in 1788.
The name comes from the country’s biggest ethnic group, the Mauri.
Mauritius had various name changes before being named, in 1598, after the Dutch Prince Maurice van Nassau.
México is the simplified Spanish version of a Nahuatl name for the Aztec capital, Metztlixihtlico, said to mean ‘In the Navel of the Moon’ from mētztli ‘moon’, xictli ‘navel’ or ‘centre’, and the suffix -co ‘place’ – to give ‘Place at the Centre of the Moon’.
Micronesia translates from the Greek for ‘small’ + ‘island’.
Moldova comes from the name of the Moldova River – which, legend has it, was named by Prince Dragoș after a dog, Molda, which drowned in the river after hunting an aurochs. It is sadly more likely that the name comes from the Gothic mulda, ‘dust’.
It was founded by the Phocaeans in the 6th century bc as Monoikos, a Greek word meaning ‘single house’ or ‘single temple’, signifying a place to rest. However, it may come from the Ligurian monegu ‘rock’
Mongolia is named after the Mongols who took their name from mong ‘brave’ or ‘undefeated’.
Montenegro means ‘black mountain’, said to be a reference to the dark appearance of Mt Lovćen at various times of the year and the surrounding heavily wooded areas.
Morocco is derived from marrūkus, the old Arabic version of Marrakech, the former capital.
Mozambique is said to have come from a ruling Arab Shaikh, Musa al Biq and the town which developed here was known to medieval Arab geographers as Musanbīh and in Swahili as Musambiki.
Myanmar changed its name from Burma in 1989, because the latter was held to be a relic of European colonialism. The current name is taken from Mranma, the local name for the Burmese people and their language. Myan means ‘swift’ and ma ‘strong’.
Namibia comes from the Nama word namib, ‘shield’.
Nauru may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’
The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.
The origin of Nepal has been disputed: it may mean ‘Beginning of a New Era’, ‘Home of Wool’, ‘Holy Place’, ‘to fly down’ and ‘house’, or be named after a king or kings called Nepa.
Netherlands or ‘Low Lands’ is the literal English translation of Nederlanden, itself a translation from the Latin inferior terra.
- New Zealand
The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.
Nicaragua may come from the name of a local 16th-century chief, Nicarao, and agua, ‘water’ in Spanish. Alternatively, it has been suggested that some Spaniards heard the name Nicaragua, perhaps meaning ‘Here, near the Lake’.
The land-locked country takes its name from the Niger River that flows through Guinea, Mali, Niger and Nigeria.
Nigeria is also named after the Niger River; Niger, in the river’s name, may come from the Berber phrase ger-n-ger, ‘river of rivers’.
The name means ‘The Way North’ or ‘The Northern Way’ from the Old Norse Norrevegr, a reference to one of the routes taken by the Vikings.
A number of theories exist as to the origin of Oman. Sumerian tablets mention a country called Magan, possibly a reference to Oman’s copper-mining industry.
Pakistan is an acronym deriving from Punjab, Afghan Frontier, Kashmir, and Baluchistan
Pakistan is an acronym deriving from Punjab, Afghan Frontier, Kashmir, and Baluchistan: lands where Muslims predominated.
The origin of the name Palau is unknown, but it should not be confused with Pulau, an Indonesian word meaning ‘island’.
Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.
- Papua New Guinea
The name comes from the Malay papuah ‘frizzy-haired men’.
The country takes its name from the Paraguay River whose name comes from para (‘river’ or ‘water’) and guay (‘born’). This name may be connected with the Payaguá tribe, perhaps meaning ‘(People) born (along) the River’.
The name comes from the River Birú or Perú, itself from the Guaraní biru or piru, ‘water’ or ‘river’.
The Philippines were named after Philip II, King of Spain in the 16th century; Philippines is an Anglicization of Filipinas.
The country is named after the Polanie ‘People of the Fields, or Plain’ from pole ‘field’.
Portugal is derived from the Latin portus cale, ‘warm harbour’, which referred to a Roman settlement, now Oporto, at the mouth of the River Douro and the fact that the port was never ice-bound.
There is no certainty as to the origin of the name. Qatara means ‘to fall’, ‘drip’, or ‘trickle’, or ‘to line up camels in single file and connect them with halters’, while qutr means ‘region’ and qutra ‘drop’. Thus the name could have been inspired by the presence of well-water or a camel park.
The name, perhaps unsurprisingly, comes from the Romans – as some members of the Roman legions settled in Dacia.
Russia comes from ‘Land of the Rus’’; it has been suggested that Rus’ comes from Ruotsi, the Finnish word for the Swedes, and therefore means ‘Swedish Vikings’; or that it is a Viking word meaning ‘oarsman’
The country takes its name from its indigenous people, the Vanyarwanda.
- St Kitts and Nevis
St Kitts is an abbreviation of St Christopher, chosen by Christopher Columbus after his patron saint. Nevis also comes from Columbus, who thought that the island’s summit, often wreathed in cloud, looked like las nieves, ‘the snows’.
- St Lucia
Saint Lucia is thought to have been discovered by Christopher Columbus, possibly on 13 December, the feast day of St Lucy.
- St Vincent and the Grenadines
The island of St Vincent was discovered by Christopher Columbus on 22 January 1498, the feast day of St Vincent of Saragossa, a martyr who died from torture in 304.
Samoa is said to mean ‘Sacred Centre’ because, according to legend, this is where Tagaloalagi created the world. It may, however, mean the ‘Place of the Moa’, an extinct bird, in the Samoan language.
- San Marino
San Marino is amed after a Christian stonemason and later saint, Marinus, who is alleged to have fled Dalmatia to escape persecution by Diocletian (245–316), Roman emperor (284–305), and who founded a hermitage on Mount Titano.
- São Tomé and Príncipe
São Tomé and Príncipe translates from Portuguese as ‘St Thomas and Prince’.
- Saudi Arabia
Saudi refers to the name of the dynasty whose eponym is Sa’ūd ibn Muhammad ibn Muqrin, while Arabia refers to the geographic region, principally the Arabian Peninsula.
Senegal may be named after the Zenaga Berbers. There is another apocryphal explanation that an explorer pointed to the Senegal River and asked what its name was. Il sunu gaol was the reply – meaning ‘our canoe’.
Serbia is named after the Serbs; it declared independence in 2006, having previously been part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and, later, Serbia and Montenegro.
The French laid claim to the islands in 1756 and named them after Jean Moreau de Séchelles (1690–1761), the French controller-general of finance (1754–6); the islands became independent in 1976.
- Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.
Singapore is derived from the Sanskrit Sim̄hapura meaning ‘Lion City’
Singapore is derived from the Sanskrit Sim̄hapura meaning ‘Lion City’, from sim̄ha, ‘lion’, and pur, ‘city’.
Slovakia is named after the Slovaks, a Slav tribe which probably came from Silesia in the 6th or 7th century.
The country is named after its indigenous inhabitants, the Slovenes.
- Solomon Islands
The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.
Somalia is named after its indigenous inhabitants, the Somalis, or Soomaali, who may have taken their name from a legendary ancestor, Soma or Samale; it has also been suggested that their name may come from so ‘go’ and mal ‘milk’, a reference to their pastoral lifestyle.
- South Africa
South Africa is, of course, the southernmost country in Africa; the word Africa may come from the Berber word afar, ‘dust’, or perhaps the ancient Egyptian root n’fr, meaning ‘good’, ‘beautiful’, or ‘perfect’.
- South Sudan
Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.
- Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka means ‘Blessed Island’ (also sometimes translated as ‘Resplendent Island’), and may be derived from the Sanskrit shrī, ‘holiness’, ‘happiness’, ‘prosperity’, or ‘honoured’, and lak diga, ‘land mass’.
Sudan comes from Balad as-Sūdān, ‘Land of the Blacks’, from balad, ‘land’, as, ‘the’, and sūdān, the plural of aswad, ‘black’.
The name Suriname is said to come from a local tribe called the Surinas or Surinen, its earliest inhabitants.
The country is named after the Swazis. The Swazis were a Nguni clan, taking their name from Ngwane III, who led them to this region of southern Africa.
Sweden is named after a powerful Germanic people, the Svear or Suiones (the Roman name), who inhabited the area around Lake Mälaren.
Switzerland takes its name from Schwyz, a German-speaking forest community that joined with Uri and Unterwalden in signing a agreement of mutual assistance as the Everlasting League.
The origin of the name Syria is not known, but it may be associated with the ancient Kingdom of Assyria, although this lay mainly in modern Iraq.
Tajikistan takes its name from its indigenous people, the Tajiks, with the additional stan. The Tajiks get their name from an Arab tribal name, Taiy or Tayyi, a name widely used to describe the Arabs in pre-Islamic times.
Tanzania is formed by merging the names of its constituent parts, Tanganyika and Zanzibar, which were united in 1964. The added –ia means ‘land’.
The country is named after the Thais whose name means ‘Free (People)’ from fra, ‘to be free’.
Togo comes from Lake Togo, whose name may come from to ‘water’ and go ‘bank’ or ‘shore’. However, it has also been suggested that the name means ‘Upon the Hill’ in the language of the Ewe, the largest ethnic group in Togo.
Tonga means ‘south’
Tonga simply means ‘south’. It is named in relation to Samoa.
- Trinidad and Tobago
Trinidad was named by Christopher Columbus in 1498, after the three peaks that surrounded the southern bay. Tobago either comes from the Haitian tambaku, ‘pipe’, or from the local word tabaco, a reference to its crops.
Tunisia is named after the city of Tunis with the suffix -ia adapted from the French name for the protectorate, Tunisie.
Turkey came from the word Turks, though they themselves used the Greek name Anatolia.
Turkmenistan simply means ‘Land of the Turkmen’ from the Oğuz Turks and stan. Their name may mean ‘Turk-like’ from the Persian Tork and the root of mandan ‘to resemble’ or the suffix men may indicate strength.
Tuvalu means ‘eight standing together’ from the Tuvaluan tu ‘to stand up’ and valu ‘eight’. The eight were the eight islands and atolls inhabited (of nine currently) when the first Europeans arrived in the 16th century.
Uganda means ‘Land of the Ganda (People)’ from the Swahili u ‘land’ and ganda, the root word and adjective for Buganda, the principle province.
Ukraine is derived from the Russian okraina ‘(land) on the edge’, thus ‘borderland’ from u ‘beside’ and kray ‘edge’ to denote the territory between the open steppes of Russia and Asia to the east and the populated lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the west.
- United Arab Emirates
This one’s easy: it’s united Arab emirates. Six of them in 1971 – Abu Dhabi, ‘Ajmān, Dubai, al-Fujairah, Sharjah (ash-Shāriqah), and Umm al Qaywayn – and Ra’s al-Khaymah joined in 1972.
- United Kingdom
This is the united kingdom of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain, in turn, was used to signify that Britain was bigger than Brittany, in France, to which refugee Britons fled to escape Anglo-Saxon invaders.
- United States
The United States of America originally united 13 constituent states, when it was established in 1776; now it is 50, with Alaska and Hawaii being the most recent additions.
As for the America bit – that was first applied to South America in 1507 by Martin Waldseemüller (c.1470–c.1521), a German geographer and cartographer, in honour of an Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512). Vespucci had made explorations that he’d initially thought to be the east coast of Asia, but later realized he had been to a ‘New World’.
Uruguay may have come from uruguä, the Guaraní for a species of mussel, thus ‘River of Shellfish’, or from uru, a type of bird that lived near the river, gua ‘to proceed from’, and y ‘water’.
The country is named after the Uzbeks, a general name for the Turkic-speaking peoples of the region.
Vanuatu means ‘our land forever’, from the Polynesian/Fijian vanua, ‘land’.
Venezuela, ‘Little Venice’, was named because it reminded the Spaniards Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city.
Viet is the Vietnamese pronunciation of a Chinese character meaning ‘beyond’ or ‘far’ and referred to the peoples living in the southern reaches of the Chinese Empire and the Red River delta. Vietnam means ‘Viets of the South’.
The meaning of Yemen is disputed. Some say that it comes from the Arabic yamīn ‘on the right-hand side’ of the Ka’bah in Mecca or to the right of the Red Sea; others that it comes from yumn ‘good fortune’ or ‘prosperity’; yet others that it is named after Yamin bin Qahtan, a grandson of Noah and progenitor of the South Arabian tribes, or that it is simply al-Yaman ‘the South’.
The country is named after the Zambezi which forms its southern border with Zimbabwe.
Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.
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