With Europe very much in the news over recent months, from finances to the February freeze, I have heard the names of many capital cities mentioned. Inevitably I was soon distracted by the origins of these names, rather than showing interest in the news.
Amsterdam, Netherlands - no surprise to find this is 'the dam on the River Amstel' on which the city stands and itself from Old Dutch aerne stelle meaning 'the area abounding with water'.
Andorra la Vella, Andorra - undoubtedly a very old place name and thus of very uncertain origins. The best explanation offered to date is the suggestion this is related to Basque andurrial meaning 'heath'.
Ankara, Turkey - by the seventh century BC this was known by the Phrygian name Ankire, perhaps featuring the Indo-European root ank 'angled, crooked'
Astana, Kazahkhstan - in the native tongue astana means 'capital', but this is itself derived from Persian for 'threshold, border point' and here understood to refer to where the court or ruling body is to be found.
Athens, Greece - ask any Greek or Athenian and they would have said it was named after the goddess Athene. However there is good reason to believe it is older and taken from the Pelasgians who occupied much of the Balkan peninsula more than five thousand years ago, in which case this means 'height, hill'.
Baku, Ajerbaijan - two possible origins for Baku, although neither is certain. The popular explanation is from Arabic through Persian, where baadku describes 'a mountain wind'. Another suggestion is Iranian abad ku, literally 'town of fire' and referring to some supposed worship of fire.
Belgrade, Serbia - the first stronghold was built here by a Celtic tribe around 2,500 years ago. This is from a Slavonic word meaning 'white fortress', telling us (rather unusually for the time) it was made from stone.
Berlin, Germany - another very old place name and again one where the origin is uncertain. Suggestions include the popular idea this contains an early word for 'bear', although there has also been 'evidence' showing diverse meanings as 'lake, hill, dame, court, customs, sandy', the list seemingly endless.
Bern, Switzerland - no surprise to find the first element is compared to the previous name, although this is no evidence this represents anything to do with the German for 'bear'. A more likely origin is the Indo-European ber or 'marshy place'.
Bratislava, Slovakia - its location means it has been influenced by many peoples and thus many languages, resulting in the place known by a number of different names. Bratislava was only offically adopted in 1919, although the name was first seen eighty years earlier when scholar Pavel Jozeg Safarrik suggested earlier names showed an association with Bohemian ruler Bretislav I.
Brussels, Belgium - a name from bruoc sella and a reminder this was 'the settlement in the marshes'.
Bucharest, Romania - traditionally held to be named after its found, a fifteenth century shepherd named Bucur. However the city was certainly established well before this and, while the origin is not certain, is related to Albanian bucur for 'pleasant beautiful' or the Romanian definition 'to rejoice'.
Budapest, Hungary - as many will be aware Budapest was two towns before the official merging in 1872. Not that this could ever be a physical merger as they lie on opposing banks of the Danube. Buda, on the right bank, and Pest, on the left, are of Slavonic origin and both have two equally plausible meanings: buda is either 'building' or 'water'; while pest is either 'cave' or 'hearth'. It is certainly not connected with the name for the Roman encampment here, their Aquincum speaking of 'ample water'.
Chisinau, Moldova - as with many names in areas which have been influenced by many peoples and languages, there are disputes over this name. If this is Romanian, then chisla noua speaks of 'the new spring'; if the Romanian name was originally Hungarian then this represents kis Jeno' the small place of the Jeno tribe'. There is alos the Russian version of Kishinev, which was how the name was introduced to English.
Copenhagen, Denmark - finally a name where we can be certain of the origins, this is from Danish kiopman havn 'the harbour of the merchants'.
Dublin, Republic of Ireland - and another name where the origins are certain. Here Irish dubh linn tells us the place was built at 'the black lake'. The contemporary Irish name is Baile Atha Cliath meaning 'the town of the ford of the hurdle'.
Helsinki, Finland - founded as a town by the Swedes in 1550 it was then known as Helsingfors, Helsing being the name of the tribe and fors the Swedish for 'waterfall'. They relocated the entire settlement to its present site in 1648, hence the 'waterfall' on the River Wanda is no longer really relevant, while Helsinki is simply the Finnish version of the original name.
Kiev, Ukraine - for once the traditional narrative appears to be correct. Legend has it the ferryman Kiy founded this settlement on the River Dnieper, although others claim one Prince Kiy gave his name to the place he captured in the ninth century.
Lisbon, Portugal - the Phoenician's were probably behind the name of Lisbon. However it is difficult to see if this is derived from ippo 'fence' or alis ubbo 'joyful bay'. We can be certain the traditional story of being named after the founder Ulysses, even though his Phoenician name was Olisipo.
Ljubljana, Slovenia - the most likely explanation is this place was named after the Ljubljanica river which flows through it, although back formation certainly cannot be ruled out. The version is from Laibach, as both city and river were known by the Middle Ages (and in use until 1918), itself from Old High German and speaking of 'the standing water liable to cause much flooding'.
London, United Kingdom - all will be aware to the Romans this was Londinium. However this is not the origin, the name was certainly much earlier and, as with the vast majoirty of apparently 'Roman' place names is simply a 'Latinicised' version of the existing name, best guess at which would be a tribal name, maybe Londinos.
Luxembourg, Luxembourg - as with many English place names this is derived from the Saxon peoples who referred to this place as Lucilinburhuc. Here Old Saxon luttil burug speaks of this as 'the little town'.