Tuesday, December 15, 2009

God Bless Vespuccia

A few years ago, I saw the play Pentecost, which features a lot of characters going on in different languages and, often, talking about language itself. At one point, while being held hostage, three characters talk about how life would be different if the continent of America had taken after Amerigo Vespucci’s last name and not his first. It would make sense, really, for the continent that I’m currently typing this post on to be called Vespuccia, since historically people have things named after their last names. In the play, the characters briefly imagine how life would have been different with a more traditionally named continent, with people singing “God Bless Vespuccia” and “I Wish They All Could Be Vespuccian Girls.”

But why the hell did this landmass get named after his first name?

According to this news article and a wealth of other historical resources, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was the first person we know of to use America in description of any chunk of the New World. He chose Vespucci’s first name, presumably, because it rendered into a feminine Latin-style word more easily than did the dude’s last name. “Europe and Asia have received names of women,” Waldseemüller wrote. “I see no reason why we should not call this other part Amerige, that is to say the land of Americus, or America, after the sagacious discoverer.”

waldseemüller’s claim to fame — and possibly vespucci’s

Of course, what Waldseemüller didn’t know at the time was that Vespucci would not be remembered at the discoverer of the New World but as the person who helped explore South America — specifically what is now Brazil. (By the way, the two women from whom Europe and Asia allegedly got their names, by the way, are Europa, who in Greek mythology was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull, and Hesione, a seemingly minor character in Greek mythology who happened to be married to Prometheus. There’s a lot of speculation that Asia actually got its name from other sources, some of it pretty damn sure that the source is actually Akkadian.)

Although the Vespucci-Waldseemüller story is the widely accepted one for explaining how America got its name, other theories exist — some plausible, some not, and some placing the coinage of the word at long before Columbus or Vespucci ever sailed across the sea.

Here, then, are a few of them:
  • According to what are described here as “fanciful theories,” the name is alleged by some to have come from the arrival of Eric the Red’s son at a land of “wheatfields and vines” in the mid-thirteenth century. A Scandinavian word amt meant “district” and combined with Eric the Red’s name to form Amteric, or “The Land of Eric.”
  • The same site notes that others — Christian white supremacists, according to the author — advocate that America got its name from Norse sailors arriving at the coast beginning in the eleventh century. They called the land Ommerike, meaning “the farthest outland.” The author, however, goes on to note that the Norsemen’s adventures to the New World weren’t known beyond their “teeny, fancy hat-shape part of Europe” until much later in history. (What I’ve written of Scandinavia in that last sentence may not represent the author’s original intention.)
  • An 1888 article in The American Geographic Society of New York discusses the possibility that the name could come from Amerique Mountains, a gold-rich area in Nicaragua that both Columbus and Vespucci allegedly visited.
  • Finally, as this BBC article notes, still others claim the name comes from a Welsh-descended Briton named Richard Amerike (also Richard Ameryk, or, in a less Anglicized form, Richard ap Meurig). Wikipedia notes that Amerike may have financed the John Cabot’s voyage to the New World, which resulted in the discovery of Newfoundland.
Regardless, the theory that ties the name to Vespucci is the one that most people stand behind. I, for one, am at least glad that Vespucci’s first name was what it was, for had it been Giuseppe or Guido, we Americans could have found ourselves living in Giuseppia or Guidopolis. As for Amerigo itself, the Online Etymology Dictionary traces it back to the Gothic Amalrich, “work-ruler,” the Old English form of which appears as the last names Emmerich and Emery. The Wikipedia page on Vespucci ties Amerigo to the medieval Latin Emericus, the German Heinrich and the English Henry, though, notably, these claims are marked with that famous superscript “citation needed,” so make of that what you will.

In any case, alternate theories about the origin of America — even ones that aren’t generally accepted as being correct — make for fun reading for onomastics wonks like me. I can only guess that the multitude of educated guesses as to where America might result from the notion that it came from someone’s first name just seems strange, even if that explanation is the one that the majority of people educated in this matters agree to be correct. (I mean, Waldseemüller did put Vespucci’s portrait in the 1507 map, so he at least seemed pretty sure of what he was doing.) I’m glad that it worked out how it did, because the notion of singing “Vespuccia the Beautiful” just doesn’t sit right.

Etymology, previously: