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Why Are There Different Names for the Same Country?

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Reader Jonathan wrote in to ask, “Why do we call other countries by names that they do not use themselves? Where did these names come from and why do we use them?"

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To Americans, the European country that gave the world Volkswagens, the Scorpions and World War II is Germany. But in Germany, they call the place Deutschland. The Spanish call Germany Alemania, the Poles call it Niemcy and the Thai call it ???????. Each of these other countries likewise has a name for itself within its own borders - an endonym - that’s different from what we call it in the U.S. and from what other countries call it - an exonym. Why all the different names if we’re talking about the same places?

Despite the fact that we give them special treatment in English and capitalize them - which not all languages do - place names aren’t all that special. Without one global language, speakers of a given language are going to have their own word for a certain part of the world. These names are just words, and like any other words, they’ve got histories and baggage and are subject to the vagaries of linguistic evolution and even sometimes the mean-spiritedness of the people who use them.

Some place names simply come from the people who inhabit the land. Germany, for example, was Germany to some folks long before the country united and called itself Deutschland. Germany’s central position in western Europe means that it has historically shared borders with many different groups, and many languages use the name of the first Germanic tribe its speakers came in contact with as a name for the whole region. The Romans named a chunk of land east of the Rhine River and north of the Danube River Germania after the first Germanic tribe they heard about from the nearby Gauls. The root of the name is from the Gauls, who called the tribe across the river the Germani, which might have meant “neighbor” or maybe “men of the forest.” English borrowed the name in turn and anglicized the ending to get Germany. 

Meanwhile, the Alemanni, a southern Germanic tribe that lived around modern-day Switzerland and Alsace prompted the French and Spanish to name the land Allemagne and Alemanía, respectively. Similarly, the Turkish name for Greece, Yunanistan, derives from the Ionians, the Greek tribe that established settlements in Asia Minor and had early contact with the Turks.

Global "Telephone"

For other place names, you can blame the global game of cultural “telephone” that we’ve been playing for thousands of years. As explorers traipsed around the globe and discovered new places, they often had no idea what to call them, so they asked the locals. The names got passed along on trade routes or through diplomacy, spoken and heard by people who didn’t share the same language. Somewhere along the way, a name got garbled or misunderstood or even purposefully changed to accommodate the sounds of one language or another.

That's how Nipon became Japan. When Marco Polo was in China, he learned about an island that was called Cipangu in one of the Chinese dialects. He took the name home to Italy, where it got corrupted into Giappone. Portuguese traders in Asia learned of the same island from the Malay, who called it Japang or Jepang. They brought the word back to Europe and turned it into Japao. Eventually, one or both of these made their way into English as Japan.

Still other place names are a matter of perception. Almost every country that speaks a Slavic language derives its name for Germany from the Slavic nemtsi or nemetes. Etymologists think this comes from the word nemy, or “mute,” and that the ancient Slavs called the neighboring Germanic tribes mutes because they couldn’t understand their language. Macedonia, which can refer to the former Yugoslavian republic or a number of other things, is derived from the ancient Greek Makedones, which the southern Greeks used to refer to the northern part of the region. Rooted in makednos (“long, tall”), it refers either to the area’s mountains or the tallness of its inhabitants.

These are just some of the more common methods by which exonyms are born. Exploring the origins of every place name would keep us here all day, so if there are specific ones you want to learn about, the Online Etymology Dictionary is a good place to start for a quick and simple explanation.

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Big Questions
Why Do We Sing the National Anthem at Sporting Events?
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In early September 1814, Francis Scott Key, an American lawyer and amateur poet, accompanied American Prisoner Exchange Agent Colonel John Stuart Skinner to negotiate a prisoner release with several officers of the British Navy. During the negotiations, Key and Skinner learned of the British intention to attack the city of Baltimore, as well as the strength and positions of British forces. They were not permitted to leave for the duration of the battle and witnessed the bombardment of Baltimore's Fort McHenry on September 13 and 14. Inspired by the American victory and the sight of the American flag flying high in the morning, Key wrote a poem titled "The Defence of Fort McHenry."

Key set the lyrics to the anthem of the London-based Anacreontic Society, "The Anacreontic Song." (Nine years earlier, Key had used the same tune for “When the Warrior Returns (from the Battle Afar)” to celebrate Stephen Decatur’s return from fighting the Barbary pirates, which included the line “By the light of the Star Spangled flag of our nation.”)

The poem was taken to a printer, who made broadside copies of it. A few days later, the Baltimore Patriot and The Baltimore American printed the poem with the note "Tune: Anacreon in Heaven." Later, Carrs Music Store in Baltimore published the words and music together as "The Star Spangled Banner."

The song gained popularity over the course of the 19th century and was often played at public events like parades and Independence Day celebrations (and, on occasion, sporting events). In 1889, the Secretary of the Navy ordered it the official tune to be played during the raising of the flag. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson ordered that it be played at all military ceremonies and other appropriate occasions, making it something of an unofficial national anthem.

After America's entrance into World War I, Major League Baseball games often featured patriotic rituals, such as players marching in formation during pregame military drills and bands playing patriotic songs. During the seventh-inning stretch of Game One of the 1918 World Series, the band erupted into "The Star-Spangled Banner." The Cubs and Red Sox players faced the centerfield flag pole and stood at attention. The crowd, already on their feet, began to sing along and applauded at the end of the song.

Given the positive reaction, the band played the song during the next two games, and when the Series moved to Boston, the Red Sox owner brought in a band and had the song played before the start of each remaining contest. After the war (and after the song was made the national anthem in 1931), the song continued to be played at baseball games, but only on special occasions like opening day, national holidays, and World Series games.

During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. "The Star-Spangled Banner" was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Words
Why Is 'Colonel' Spelled That Way?
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English spelling is bizarre. We know that. From the moment we learn about silent “e” in school, our innocent expectations that sound and spelling should neatly match up begin to fade away, and soon we accept that “eight” rhymes with “ate,” “of” rhymes with “love,” and “to” sounds like “too” sounds like “two.” If we do sometimes briefly pause to wonder at these eccentricities, we quickly resign ourselves to the fact that there must be reasons—stuff about history and etymology and sound changing over time. Whatever. English. LOL. Right? It is what it is.

But sometimes English takes it a step too far, does something so brazen and shameless we can’t just let it slide. That’s when we have to throw our shoulders back, put our hands on our hips and ask, point blank, what is the deal with the word “colonel”?

“Colonel” is pronounced just like “kernel.” How did this happen? From borrowing the same word from two different places. In the 1500s, English borrowed a bunch of military vocabulary from French, words like cavalerie, infanterie, citadelle, canon, and also, coronel. The French had borrowed them from the Italians, then the reigning experts in the art of war, but in doing so, had changed colonello to coronel.

Why did they do that? A common process called dissimilation—when two instances of the same sound occur close to each other in a word, people tend to change one of the instances to something else. Here, the first “l” was changed to “r.” The opposite process happened with the Latin word peregrinus (pilgrim), when the first “r” was changed to an “l” (now it’s peregrino in Spanish and Pellegrino in Italian. English inherited the “l” version in pilgrim.)

After the dissimilated French coronel made its way into English, late 16th century scholars started producing English translations of Italian military treatises. Under the influence of the originals, people started spelling it “colonel.” By the middle of the 17th century, the spelling had standardized to the “l” version, but the “r” pronunciation was still popular (it later lost a syllable, turning kor-o-nel to ker-nel). Both pronunciations were in play for a while, and adding to the confusion was the mistaken idea that “coronel” was etymologically related to “crown”—a colonel was sometimes translated as “crowner” in English. In fact, the root is colonna, Italian for column.

Meanwhile, French switched back to “colonel,” in both spelling and pronunciation. English throws its shoulders back, puts its hands on its hips and asks, how boring is that?

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