Sunday 29 April 2012

The Etymology of the Names of African Nations (A to L)

Having thought about my last post and the first words spoken as our earliest ancestors embarked on the long trek out of Africa, I began to wonder about the names of the nations as they appear in the 21st century.

Africa is the obvious starting point as it also happens to come first alphabetically. A name which may come from that of the ancient Berber tribes of the north of the continent as 'cave dwellers' and named by the Romans around the time they captured Carthage. As a name it is unrecorded before the 2nd century BC and originally only applied to a small province of what is now Tunisia before slowly spreading to the rest of the continent.

Algeria is named after its capital, Algiers coming from the Arabic al-Jaza'ir which means 'the islands' and reminds us this city was built on four islands which were joined to the mainland in 1525.

Angola is from the Bantu of Ngola, a name of uncertain meaning but thought likely to be a royal title.

Benin taken from the Edo-Bini kingdom and thus the Bini people. Prior to 1975 this was Dahomey, thought to be a combination of the personal name Dag and a Sudanese word meaning 'intestines'. In the 17th century poor Dag was slit open by a member of his own palace staff, giving the capital the name of 'Dag's belly' and continued to be used in the metaphorical sense of 'a part of Dag'.

Botswana is named after the people native to these lands, the Tswana tribes also giving their name to the former name of the country, before 1966 this was Bechuanaland.

Burkina Faso literally translates as 'honest men country', the nation known as Upper Volta until 1984, named after the River Volta, itself meaning 'the river of return'. The river was named by an early expeditionary group, although whether they were referring to its turning or winding course or their means of returning from their destination was not recorded.

Burundi is ultimately named from its population, the Barundi. Before independence in 1962 this was united with neighbouring Rwanda as Ruanda-Urundi.

Cameroon is named after the river, which comes from Portuguese camaroes telling of the 'prawns' the sailors found in its waters.

Cape Verde is situated on a group of islands in the Atlantic, named from the Portuguese name for the 'green cape' or Cabo Verde in Senegal, these found off the coast of this mainland country.

Central African Republic is exactly what it says it is.

Chad is named after the lake, itself from a Bornuan word with an overly simplistic meaning of 'large expanse of water'.

Comoros is an island group in the Indian Ocean, north of Madagascar. The original Greek name, as recorded by Ptolemy in the 2nd century AD, was Ore Selenaie 'the moon mountains' and translated to Arabic for the modern name from kamar 'moon'.

Cote d'Ivoire is a translation of the original Portuguese name who referred to this place on the coast where they traded ivory by 1447.

Democratic Republic of the Congo named after the one of the world's great rivers which, rather ironically, means 'mountains' and is derived from the Bantu kong.

Republic of the Congo as with the above, named after the river Congo.

Djibouti was originally known as French Somaliland and now takes the name of the capital city, itself from an Afar word gabouri meaning 'plate'. This is a ceremonial plate, woven from palm fibres and placed on a pedestal.

Egypt is an ancient name and it comes as no surprise to find at least four possible meanings. The ancient capital was Memphis, the city of Pta, and maybe this represents Ga-Ka-Pta 'the house of the god Pta'. This could be Greek aia koptos 'the land of the Copts'. Alternatively we have the Phoenician kap-thor meaning 'island', the early settlements supposedly within the delta of the Nile. While another reference to the river may be in the Arabic kemi as the 'black land' in the colour of the waters or possibly the colour of inhabitants' skin.

Equatorial Guinea the first element is self-explanatory, this necessary as their are three 'Guineas' in Africa. All share an origin in Berber aguinau or 'black', the skin colour of the indigenous peoples.

Eritrea is certainly from the Greek erythros meaning 'red', although it is debatable whether this refers to the red soil or the Red Sea.

Ethiopia is popualrly from the Greek aithos ops and referring to 'the people with sunburnt faces'.

Gabon is another named after the river, itself named by the Portuguese from its estuary seen in 1485 as gabao 'the cape' and presumably referring to the clothing worn by the local people.

Gambia is, once again, a river named by the Portuguese who 'discovered' this in the 15th century. They can hardly have 'discovered' it in the true sense as their corruption of the name given by the indigenous people of Ba-Dimma which means simply 'river'.

Ghana took the name of the tribal leader, their version of 'king' being ghana.

Guinea as with Equatorial Guinea from Berber aguinau or 'black'.

Guinea Bissau and again from Berber for 'black'.

Kenya is thought to be named after Mount Kenya, which maybe Swahili for 'mountain' or perhaps a Kikuyu word kerenyaga describing 'the mountain of whiteness' for it is permanently snow-capped.

Lesotho is named after its people, the Sotho, whose named is derived from the river name meaning 'brown' and coloured by the sediment.

Liberia is from the Latin liber 'free' for this was where American slaves were allowed to return to their homeland and freedom from 1822.

Libya is the oldest name on the continent and is recorded on Egyptian hieroglyphics over 4,000 years ago. Unfortunately the origin is completely obscure.

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