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Why Are There Different Names for the Same Country?

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?"

Germany image via Shutterstock

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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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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Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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