The last couple of posts have looked at the origins of the names of the countries, and then the capital cities, of the nations of the Americas. Having already looked at countries and capitals of Europe and also Africa, thought I should complete the set with those of the largest continent, Asia.
Afghanistan – is held to be named after the legendary forefather of all the Afghans and thus the name Afghana is followed by the Iranian word stan meaning simply ‘country’. It will soon become apparent this suffix is used for a number of countries around the western part of Asia.
Armenia – a name of uncertain etymology, albeit definitely an ancient one. The native name for the region is Hayk, the legendary patriarch of the Armenians and the great-great-grandson of Noah who led his people around 4,500 years ago. The first mention of the present name is said to be seen on a Persian Inscription dating from 515BC as Armina and, once again, said to point to a legendary father of the nation, one Armenak.
Asia – it did seem appropriate to give the origin of the name of the continent at this point. Originally this name referred solely to the eastern coastline of the Aegean Sea where Assyrian asu with the joint meaning of ‘sunrise, east’ corresponded with ereb ‘sunset, west’ and the basis for the name of Europe. As recently as the 1st century BC the name applied only to a Roman province along this coast.
Azerbaijan – is another ancient name and of uncertain origins. However the traditional explanation points to the Persian Atropates, a satrap or governor of this region. Some suggest his name comes from the region already known as ‘land of (holy) fire’. Geologically the land here does release combustible gases and did attract a culture of fire-worshippers who built their temples here.
Bahrain – has a name originating from Arabic al-Bahrayn meaning ‘two seas’. Even today the sea to the north and that to the south are known by different names, the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Bahrain, respectively.
Bangladesh – until 1971 this was East Pakistan and, as one of the world’s youngest nations, has one of the easiest names to define. This is from Bengali and means ‘Bengal nation’.
Bhutan – is quite simply the Sanskrit bhot ‘country’.
Brunei – again this may represent a Sanskrit word meaning ‘land’, although others would suggest a Malay word meaning ‘plant’. Yet traditionally this was founded, and therefore named, by one Awang Alak Betatar who came here and, on discovering the estuary, pointed and exclaimed Baru nah! meaning ‘That’s it!’
Cambodia – is yet another nation held to be named after a mythical forefather. Here the Khmers came from Cambu, also the local name for the Mekong River, and while the correct name today is Kampuchea, the earlier Cambodia is just a Portuguese version of that name.
China – as with Cambodia this has been influenced by the Portuguese. There are two possible origins for this, either from the Ch’in dynasty of the 3rd century BC or, and this seems less likely, Ji-nan ‘south of the sun’. Note the Chinese name for China is Chung-hua ‘the middle land’. As one who delights in etymologies, especially of place names, and as this ‘middle land’ is how every homeland is seen to its inhabitants, I am so very thankful others were infinitely more imaginative.
Cyprus – even with its long recorded history the name of Cyprus remains a mystery. Of course there have been suggestions, all from the Greek, where it would either be from its many cypress trees (although these are not native but were imported from Lebanon), a reference to the henna plant Lawsonia alba, or a pointer to the large deposits of copper ore.
Georgia – has its modern name from an anglicised form of the Russian name, the Russians referring to the people as Gruzia. The origins of their name is disputed but may come from Middle Persian varkana or ‘the place of wolves’.
India – in 1947 what had been the India under British rule split to form the new nations of Pakistan and what is now known as Bangladesh. This is ironic as India was named after the River Indus, now entirely in Pakistan. As with nearly all major rivers the name of Indus means ‘river’, this from the Sanskrit sindhu.
Indonesia – is an island which shows etymologically historical links to India, for this takes the name of India and adds the Greek nesos or ‘island’.
Iran – is another name ultimately traceable to Sanskrit. Here aria, which also gave the Iranian ariya, means ‘worthy’. This had been the name of the Indo-European people who settled this region many thousands of years ago. For such an ancient name this has only been the official name of the country since 1935. Prior to that it was Persia, also named from an indigenous group Farsi who share their name with the Pharisees and which comes from the Sanskrit parasah ‘steed’ and describes them as ‘horsemen’.
Iraq – is simply Arabic iraq ‘the well-rooted country’. Known as Mesopotamia for millennia, this came from Greek mesos potamos ‘between the rivers’ (Tigris and Euphrates).
Israel – is the name of the Hebrew tribe, the Israelites. In turn this came from Israel or ‘god Isra’ and the second name of Jacob interpreted as ‘God’s warrior’ from Hebrew sara ‘to fight’ and El ‘God’.
Japan – is the Chinese name for the islands where Ji-pen-kue describes ‘the land of the rising sun’.
Jordan – is named after the River Jordan, itself from the Hebrew and either jarden ‘to drain’ or jarda ‘to rush’, both apt descriptions of rivers.
Kazakhstan – is named after the native peoples. The Kazakhs, with the addition of Iranian stan ‘country’, were of Turkish origin whose name is thought to mean ‘freemen’.
Korea (North and South) – etymologically, if not politically, North and South Korea are identical. Until the 14th century this was Koryo ‘the high place’, itself a dynastic name and hence the modern name. To North Koreans their homeland is Chosen from the name of the next dynasty of Choson, meanwhile South Koreans refer to their land as Taehan, itself from Han the earlier name of the states here.
Kuwait – is an Arabic name where Al-Kuwayt refers to ‘the enclosed’ and probably points to the 16th century Portuguese fort.
Kyrgyzstan – another Iranian stan or ‘country’ following a Turkic word for ‘forty’. This would refer to the forty clans led by the legendary hero Manas who led the fight against the dominant Uyghurs.
Laos – named after the Thai Lao people, with the Portuguese adding the plural ‘s’.
Lebanon – takes the name of the mountains, itself from the Aramaic laban ’white’, which may refer to the snow-capped peaks or the limestone rocks.
Part two will follow next time and, in coming weeks, a look at the origins of the capital cities.