Exploration and etymology – how does that mix, and who is allowed to name continents? There are seven continents on our planet: Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America. Have you ever wondered where these names came from? How were they decided upon? In this article, we will explore the meanings behind each continent’s name and how they were named in the first place.
How are continents named?
As a child, I dreamed of becoming a cartographer, but in reality, the times of exploration and drawing maps of new places are over. The naming of continents is a complicated process that has been ongoing for centuries. The first person to name the continents was Greek astronomer Ptolemy in the second century AD. At the time, there were only three known continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. Ptolemy named them after the three most well-known regions of the world at the time.
The naming of the other four continents came later, as exploration and discovery led to the identification of new landmasses. The first continent to be named after its discoverer was Australia, which was originally called Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”). The name Australia was eventually chosen as it was more concise and easier to pronounce. But let’s check into the details for each content one by one.
The naming of Africa is a bit more complicated than the other continents. It is thought that the name “Africa” comes from the Ancient Romans, who used the word “afri” to refer to the people who lived in the area we now know as Tunisia, the Berbers at that time.
The word “afri” eventually came to be used as a general term for all of the dark-skinned people of the African continent. However, some historians believe that the name actually comes from the Greek word “aphrike,” which means “without cold” or “without darkness.”
Antarctica is the only continent that is named after a feature of its geography rather than its discoverer or any inhabited regions. The word “Antarctica” comes from the Greek words ἀντάρκτις (antarktis), meaning “opposite to the Arctic” or “opposite to the north.”
While Antarctica is relatively new to the map of continents, its name has been in use for centuries. The first recorded use of the word “Antarctica” was by Greek mariner Constantine Phipps in his 1773 book A Voyage Towards the North Pole.
How did Asia get its name? Even though early concepts of what Asia entails varied greatly, the name is thought to come from the Ural Mountains. The Greek historian Herodotus was the first to use the word “Asia,” and he did so in reference to the easternmost limits of his own knowledge and geography.
Later, when other writers began using the term, they used it in reference to Herodotus’ original definition. Another theory suggests that it comes from the Akkadian word asu, meaning “east” or “sunrise.”
North and South America were named after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first to realize that these landmasses were not part of Asia as initially believed but were two separate continents. The word “America” is derived from his first name. Amerigo Vespucci was not the first person to discover the Americas, however.
That distinction belongs to Christopher Columbus, who arrived in the Caribbean in 1492. His discovery led to the widespread belief that a fourth continent, Atlantis, might exist west of Europe and Africa. This belief persisted until the late 1500s, when Amerigo Vespucci’s explorations proved that no such continent existed.
The naming of Australia is a bit of a controversial topic. As mentioned before, the continent was originally called Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”). The name Australia was eventually chosen as it was more concise and easier to pronounce. However, some people argue that the name should have been kept as Terra Australis, as it is more accurate and reflective of the continent’s history.
The only landmass that does not have a name starting with an “A” is Europe. Its name is derived from the legend of Europa, a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a white bull. Zeus took Europa to the island of Crete, where she bore him three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. The continent of Europe is named after this legendary figure.
Does that conclude the naming of places?
For the most part, yes. There are a few other small landmasses that are sometimes considered continents, but for the most part, these seven continents are all that are recognized. So next time you’re asked, “What’s in a name?” you can at least give a pretty detailed answer when it comes to the continents of our planet.
If you’re eager to name new locations, this might be difficult. The great age of exploration is over, and even if humankind would set out to settle on other planets, these objects and even locations on those planets are likely to have already received names by scientists that first found out about them from a remote location with highly powerful telescopes.
Suppose you’re interested in alternative names and more theories and facts about how the planet’s continents got their names and which stuck and which faded over time. In that case, you can check out the video below, with explanations from the Cogito YouTube channel.
YouTube: How Did The Continents Get Their Names?
Photo credit: The feature image has been done by Goir.