List of continent name etymologies

This is a list of the etymologies of continent names as they are currently found on Earth.


There are many theories regarding the etymological origin of the nameAfrica. The most suitable is that the name comes from the Ancient Egyptian word 'afruika' - which means 'turning towards the ka' or 'turning towards the birthplace' or 'motherland' of humanity .

Other Eurocentric theories claim that the ancient Romans used the name Africa terra – "land of the Afri" (plural, or "Afer" singular) – for the northern part of the continent that corresponds to modern-day Tunisia. The origin of Afer may be the Phoenician afar, dust; the Afri tribe, who dwelt in Northern Africa around the area of Carthage; Greek aphrike (*ἀφρίκη), without cold; or Latin aprica, sunny. This is however unreasonable because Tunisia as "Africa" couldn't be considered as land of "dust" considering the fact that the phoenician region itself was part of the great Arabian desert which at the time was more more dusty than Tunisia.

The name "Africa," which was originally used by the Romans to refer to present-day Tunisia, only began to be stretched to encompass a larger area when the provinces of Tripolitania, Numidia and Mauretania Caesariensis were subdued to the Diocesis of Africa, following the administrative restructuring of Diocletian. Later, when Justinian I reconquered lands of the former West Roman Empire, all the regions from the Chelif River to the Gulf of Sidra were annexed to the Byzantine Empire as the "Exarchate of Africa".

During the Middle Ages, as the Europeans increased their knowledge and awareness of the size of the African continent, they progressively extended the name of Africa to the rest of the continent.

North America and South AmericaEdit

The continents of North and South America (also sometimes deemed as a single continent, America, especially by many postcolonial Spanish-speaking countries) are thought to be named after the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci (who styled himself Americus Vespucius in Latin). Amerigo Vespucci was named after Saint Emeric of Hungary. Vespucci, following his four voyages exploring the coastlines of Venezuela and Brazil, first developed the idea that the newly discovered western land was in fact a continent. The German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller created the earliest known map showing the name America, which he applied to the South American continent only. One later antique map[which?] labels the two landmasses "North America or Mexicana" and "South America or Peruana".[citation needed]

An alternative theory was proposed by the local Bristol antiquarian Alfred Hudd who proposed that the word America had evolved from Amerike or ap Meryk, based on a lost manuscript which he claimed to have seen. Alfred Hudd was an aristocrat who belonged to the Clifton Antiquarian Club of Bristol, founded in 1884 to arrange meetings and excursions for the study of objects of archaeological interest in the West of England and South Wales. He also collected butterflies, was a naturalist and member of the Bristol Naturalists' Society. Hudd proposed that the word "America" was originally applied to a destination across the western ocean, possibly an island or a fishing station in Newfoundland. After the king of Denmark and ruler of Iceland had cut off trade for fish, England sent out expeditions to find new sources. Hudd suggested Amerike's sponsorship made his name known in Bristol in association with the North American destinations prior to other mapmaking or voyages. The writer Jonathan Cohen noted he made a conjectural leap to reach that conclusion, and no extant evidence supports it.[1] In the 21st century, the scholar John Davies briefly mentioned the story as a kind of Welsh patriot piece.[2]


The word Antarctica comes from Greek antarktikos (ἀνταρκτικός), from anti (ἀντί) and arktikos (ἀρκτικός) "Arctic". Literally "opposite to the Arctic (opposite to the North)".[3][4][5] Arktikos comes from Arktos, the Greek name for the constellation of the Great Bear Ursa Major, visible only in the Northern Hemisphere, which comes from the ancient Greek word ἄρκτος (Greek: [ˈarktos]), which means "bear".[6]


The word Asia originated from the Ancient Greek word Ἀσία,[7] first attributed to Herodotus (about 440 BCE) in reference to Anatolia or to the Persian Empire, in contrast to Greece and Egypt.

It originally was just a name for the east bank of the Aegean Sea, an area known to the Hittites as Assuwa. In early Classical times, the Greeks started using the term "Asia" to refer to the whole region known today as Anatolia (the peninsula which forms the Asian portion of present-day Turkey). The Roman Empire referred to the entire Lydian region of what is now northwestern Turkey as the province of Asia. Eventually, however, the name had been stretched progressively further east, until it came to encompass the much larger land area with which we associate it today, while the Anatolian Peninsula started being called "Asia Minor" or "The Lesser Asia" instead.

The deeper root of the etymology can only be guessed at. The following two possibilities have been suggested:

  • It could have originated from the Aegean root "Asis" which means "muddy and silty" as a description of the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea.
  • It could derive from the borrowed Semitic root "Asu", which means varyingly "rising" or "light", of course a directional referring to the sunrise, Asia thus meaning 'Eastern Land'.

However, since the Greek name Asia is in all likelihood related to Hittite Assuwa, the etymology of one has to account for the other as well.

Personified in Greek mythology by the deity of the same name.


The word Australia means "Southern Land" in New Latin, adapted from the legendary pseudo-geographical Terra Australis Incognita ("Unknown Southern Land") dating back to the Roman era. First appearing as a corruption of the Spanish name for an island in Vanuatu in 1625,[8] "Australia" was slowly popularized following the advocacy of the British explorer Matthew Flinders in his 1814 description of his circumnavigation of the island.[9] Lachlan Macquarie, a Governor of New South Wales, used the word in his dispatches to England and recommended it be formally adopted by the Colonial Office in 1817.[10] The Admiralty agreed seven years later and the continent became officially known as Australia in 1824.[11]


The name Europe comes from the Latin Europa, which in turn derives from the Greek Εὐρώπη, from εὐρύς eurys "wide" and ὤψ ops "face"[12] (PIE *wer-, "broad" *okw-, "eye"). In Greek mythology, Europa was the beautiful daughter of a Phoenician king named Agenor or Phoenix. When Zeus saw her, he transformed himself into a bull and approached her and her playing friends. She climbed onto the bull's back and it swam off to Crete, where she had three sons with it (Minos, Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon, the first two of which constitute, together with Aeacus, the three judges of the underworld).

Another possibility, proposed by Ernest Klein, is that it derives from the ancient Sumerian and Semitic root "Ereb", which carries the meaning of "darkness" or "descent", a reference to the region's western location in relation to Mesopotamia, the Levantine Coast, Anatolia, and the Bosporus. Thus the term would have meant the "land of the setting of the Sun" or, more generically, "Western land".


The word Oceania comes from the English word ocean for 'a large body of water'. It is ultimately derived from Greek Ὠκεανός (Okeanos),[13] the great river or sea surrounding the disk of the Earth. Personified, in Greek Mythology, as Oceanus, son of Uranus and Gaia and husband of Tethys.



Zealandia (/zˈlændiə/), also known as the New Zealand continent or Tasmantis, is a nearly submerged continental fragment that sank after breaking away from Australia 60–85 Ma (million years) ago, and most of it (93%) remains submerged beneath the Pacific Ocean. It derives its name from the island country of New Zealand which occupies the vast majority of its non-submerged land. Dutch explorers named the land Nova Zeelandia after the Dutch province of Zeeland,[14][15] and British explorer James Cook subsequently anglicised the name to New Zealand.[16][self-published source][17]


The name Pangaea/Pangea is derived from Ancient Greek pan (πᾶν, "all, entire, whole") and Gaia (Γαῖα, "Mother Earth, land").[18][23] The word was allegedly coined by German meteorologist Alfred L. Wegener[24] in 1915. The name was meant to imply the all-encompassing nature of Pangaea, that all the earth (landmass) on the planet at the time was encompassed within the Supercontinent.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Jonathan Cohen, "The naming of America: fragments we've shored against ourselves", early version appeared in American Voices, 1998; this version at his website at Stony Brook University, accessed 10 july 2011
  2. ^ John Davies (2001). "Wales and America" (PDF). North American Journal of Welsh Studies, Vol. 1, Volume 1, Number 1-2, (Winter-Summer). p. 12. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-12-16. Retrieved 2008-11-30.
  3. ^ "Antarctic facts, information, pictures - articles about Antarctic".
  4. ^ "antarctic - Search Online Etymology Dictionary".
  5. ^ "anti- - Origin and meaning of prefix anti- by Online Etymology Dictionary".
  6. ^ "arctic - Search Online Etymology Dictionary".
  7. ^ "asia - Search Online Etymology Dictionary".
  8. ^ Purchas, Samuel. "A note of Australia del Espíritu Santo, written by Master Hakluyt", in Hakluytus Posthumus, Vol. IV, pp. 1422-1432. 1625.
  9. ^ Flinders, Matthew. A Voyage to Terra Australis Archived 2012-11-11 at the Wayback Machine. 1814.
  10. ^ Letter of 12 December 1817. Weekend Australian, 30–31 December 2000, p. 16.
  11. ^ Department of Immigration and Citizenship (2007). Life in Australia (PDF). Commonwealth of Australia. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-921446-30-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 October 2009. Retrieved 30 March 2010.
  12. ^ "Europe - Origin and meaning of the name Europe by Online Etymology Dictionary".
  13. ^ "ocean - Search Online Etymology Dictionary".
  14. ^ Wilson, John (September 2007). "Tasman's achievement". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 16 February 2008.
  15. ^ Mackay, Duncan (1986). "The Search For The Southern Land". In Fraser, B (ed.). The New Zealand Book Of Events. Auckland: Reed Methuen. pp. 52–54.
  16. ^ Nedell, Jack (2012). Around the World in 80 Years. Xlibris Corporation. p. 33. ISBN 9781477143858.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)[self-published source]
  17. ^ McKinnon, Malcolm (November 2009). "Place names – Naming the country and the main islands". Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Retrieved 24 January 2011.
  18. ^ "Pangaea". Online Etymology Dictionary.
  19. ^ Vergilius Mario, Publius. Georgicon, IV.462
  20. ^ Lucan. Pharsalia, I.679
  21. ^ Lewis, C.T. & al. "Pangaeus" in A Latin Dictionary. (New York), 1879.
  22. ^ Usener, H. Scholia in Lucani Bellum Civile, Vol. I. (Leipzig), 1869.
  23. ^ As "Pangaea", it appears in Greek mythology as a mountain battle site during the Titanomachia. As "Pangaeus", it was the name of a specific mountain range in southern Thrace. "Pangaea" also appears in Vergil's Georgics[19] and Lucan's Pharsalia[20][21] The scholiast on Lucan glossed Pangaea id est totum terra—"Pangaea: that is, all land"—as having received its name on account of its smooth terrain and unexpected fertility.[22]
  24. ^ Cite error: The named reference Pangaea was invoked but never defined (see the help page).

External linksEdit