Special Report

The Surprising Stories Behind 50 Country Names

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46. Singapore

Singapore was founded as a trading colony by the British in 1819 on the site of a 14th-century Malay port, and has been an independent city-state since 1965. It takes its name from the Sanskrit “simhapuram,” meaning Lion City. Although no lions are native to the region, Lion City remains a nickname for Singapore, and a massive water-spouting statue of a “Merlion” (half lion, half fish) on the Singapore River is a national icon.

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47. Spain

There are several theories as to the origin of this country’s name. The Phoenicians, who began colonizing the Iberian Peninsula around 800 B.C., may have called it “i-spn-ya,” the place where metals are forged (the area was known for its mineral wealth). Alternately, some say the name derives from the Carthaginians, circa 300 B.C., who called it “Ispania,” or “Land of the Rabbits” (the animals were plentiful here). In either case, the Romans later Latinized the name to Hispania, which became the Spanish Espanya, which is anglicized as “Spain.” An older version of the story equates “Spain” with the Basque word “ezpanna,” said to mean edge or border, though in modern Basque the word means “we do not know.”

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48. Sri Lanka

Known as Ceylon until 1972 when its name was changed, this island nation off the southeastern coast of India may draw its modern name from the Sanskrit words “shrī,” meaning holiness, happiness, or prosperity, and “lak diga,” land mass.

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49. Trinidad and Tobago

Christopher Columbus named the larger island of this two-island state La Isla de la Trinidad, the island of the Trinity, in 1498. According to one version of the story, his ship was running low on drinking water and he made a vow to name the first land he saw in honor of the Holy Trinity if he and his crew were spared. Trinidad then came into view, and the fact that the crew could see three mountain peaks rising from it strengthened Columbus’s resolve. The etymology of Tobago is more complicated, but the name seems to be related to tobacco, either because the island’s natives smoked it or because the island itself was thought to have the shape of a cigar or pipe.

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50. Zimbabwe

Called Southern Rhodesia or Rhodesia during its colonial era, this African country was renamed after independence in honor of the historic Great Zimbabwe civilization of the 11th through 15th centuries, home of the legendary Queen of Sheba. The Great Zimbabwe capital complex, in the southeastern part of the modern nation, was the largest stone structure in pre-colonial southern Africa, and its name comes from the Shona phrase “dzimba-dze-mabwe,” meaning houses of stone.