Special Report

The Surprising Stories Behind 50 Country Names

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1. Andorra

Nobody knows for certain how this principality high in the Pyrenees Mountains, jointly administered by representatives of France and Spain, got its name. One theory links it to the Spanish (some sources say Navarrese) word “andurrial,” meaning a quagmire or a piece of wasteland. Another relates it to an Arabic term for forest. A more fanciful etymology suggests that the Emperor Charlemagne gave it its name in reference to Endor, a biblical village in the Holy Land.

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2. Angola

Angola, a longtime Portuguese colony in southwestern Africa which gained independence in 1975, takes its name from the title “ngola,” held by rulers of the medieval Ndongo Kingdom in what is now the northern part of the country.

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3. Anguilla

This Caribbean island is long and thin, and its shape most likely prompted somebody — Christopher Columbus, according to some theories, but more probably French explorers — to name it for the eel, “anguilla” in Italian, “anguila” in Spanish, and “anguille” in French.

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4. Argentina

Spanish explorers in the 16th century called the estuary of the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, near present-day Buenos Aires, the Río de la Plata, or River of Silver — perhaps because the region’s native inhabitants wore silver ornaments, spurring rumors that silver mines existed nearby. The area around the estuary came to be known as Tierra Argentina, or Silvery Land, and eventually the first part of the name was dropped.

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5. Australia

Around 150 A.D., Greek astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy drew a map on which he imagined a large land mass in the Southern Hemisphere, which he labeled “Terra Australis Incognita,” Latin for “unknown southern land.” Dutch explorers originally called the country’s western coast New Holland. The English later claimed the country’s eastern coast, calling it New South Wales. The English scientist Matthew Flinders who had circumnavigated the land mass in 1802 and 1803, was the first to hark back to Ptolemy and call the whole continent “Australia.” In 1817, the governor of New South Wales, Lachlan Macquarie, began using the name in official correspondence, and it stuck.