The Name of our Country – Part 2

The New World had no name until 1507. The name “America” stems from a letter Vespucci wrote about the beauty of the New World, which was widely read in Europe. A copy of it came into the hands of a German professor, Martin Waldseemueller, a teacher of geography in a little college at Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, in eastern France. In 1507 this letter and others by Vespucci were printed by the college press as an appendix to a new edition of the popular Geography of Ptolemy. The book contained a map which was the first to show the New World surrounded by water and, therefore, definitely not part of Asia. It also contained the suggestion that the newly found land should be named America in honor of Vespucci because Waldseemueller supposed he had discovered it. “The New World having been discovered by Americus Vespucius…I do not see what fairly hinders us from calling it Amerige or America, viz., the land of Americus,” he wrote.

The name “America” was placed on the maps of that time. (Other names given the southern land mass about that time were “New India” and “Land of the Parrots”.) Waldseemueller wrote it across the space for Brazil, but intending it to name all of South America. Waldseemueller’s map was the first to depict the Americas as a separate land mass, not connected to Asia. The northern continent was left unnamed on the map, possibly because it was not yet recognized as a separate continent. However, by 1528 Columbus’s Indies were known as the Americas. (In 2003 the Library of Congress acquired the only known surviving copy of the Waldseemueller map. It is a woodcut print on paper in 12 sections, measuring 8’ x 4.5’ altogether. It has been called America’s “birth certificate” and “baptismal certificate” and is on display at the library.)

Mercator, the Flemish geographer, was the first to use the name for the entire land mass of the Americas, and others followed his lead, extending the name of America to the entire Western Hemisphere. The first geography of America was issued by Enciso at Saragossa, Spain, in 1519. By the 1530s, nearly all of Europe referred to the new land as America. When it became clear there were two continents, they were designated North America and South America.

So it came about that the continents were named by an obscure German professor in a French college for an Italian navigator in the service of the king of Spain.

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