There are no rules governing the naming of places, countries or otherwise, and in many cases no accepted explanations of how they were named. Some names refer, or at least apparently refer, to geographical features: Honduras’s name is likely related to the Spanish word “hondura,” for depth, referring to its coastal waters; Andorra may or may not take its from a Spanish and Navarrese word for wasteland, “andurrial.” Flora or fauna might also be referenced, as with Brazil, from its indigenous pau bresil tree; Cameroon, whose name refers to the shrimp that were abundant in its waters (“camarões” means shrimp in Portuguese); or Italy, whose name possibly derives from “vitulus,” Latin for bull-calf (the bull was a local tribal symbol).
Other countries take their names from individuals, as with Bolivia (after the South American revolutionary leader Simón Bolivar) or Mauritius (for the Dutch ruler Maurice, Prince of Orange), or from indigenous peoples (Russia, after the Ros or Rus; France after the Franks). At least one country name — Greenland — might even be the result of an early public relations campaign.
In researching derivations, we discovered countless examples of folk etymology — popular but unscientific, and almost certainly incorrect, attempts to explain the origins of words. Aruba, for example, has been said to take its name from a Spanish phrase, “oro huba,” supposedly meaning “there is gold” — but “huba” isn’t a Spanish word, and the actual translation would be “hay oro.” The Moldova River, for which the country of Moldova is named, is sometimes said to be called that in honor of a hunting dog named Molda that drowned in its waters. For serious etymologists, that dog won’t hunt.
Learning the origins of country names can be fun and surprising. It can also often tell us something about the history and values of other parts of our world.
To research the origins of the names of 50 of the world’s countries, 24/7 Wall St began with the Encyclopedia Britannica’s list of about 200 nations. We eliminated those whose names have obvious origins, such as the United Arab Emirates and the Central African Republic, and those with unknown derivations (the origin of Palau’s name remains a mystery), as well as countries whose names were explained solely by obviously unscientific etymologies. Our sources included the Online Etymology Dictionary, the Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Place Names, the Oxford English Dictionary, the CIA’s World Factbook, the Encyclopedia Britannica, online dictionaries for numerous languages, and the official government websites of various countries.