Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Nations of Oceania – Etymologically Speaking

Following on from previous weeks here we tie up the loose ends by examining the last of the continents. A comparatively modern term, only coined in the early nineteenth century, Oceania comes from a Greek word for ‘ocean’, an unusual name for a continent. Just what it comprises depends upon the record consulted but, for our purposes, it is everything in and around the Pacific basin not considered a part of Asia, North America, or South America.

Australia – A country originally known as Terra Australis Incognita or ‘unknown southern land’, this strange name because, perhaps uniquely, it appeared on a 2nd century map some 1,500 years before it was first sighted by Europeans.

Fiji – a name of uncertain meaning but one where the origins are well known. The island group is named from the main island, correctly known as Viti Levu and referred to by the inhabitants discovered by Captain James Cook as simply Viti. It was not the Fijians but the Tongans who knew the place as Fisi, in turn Anglicised as Fiji.

Kiribati – first sighted by Europeans in 1788 and later named by the French after the captain of that earlier vessel. That original captain was Thomas Gilbert, hence the Iles Gilbert or Gilbert Islands. The local name is Tungaru, thought to be after a former chieftain. Yet in a highly unusual turn of events the populace decided to use this local pronunciation of Gilberts, ie Kiribati, to show the group now encompasses other islands originally outside of their group. One of the islands in the group, sighted on Christmas Day and thus named Christmas Island, underwent the identical change and is known by the apparent Gilbertese name of Kiritimati, again the local pronunciation of the European name.

Marshall Islands – In the same year as Gilbert spied the Gilbert Islands, Captain John Marshall explored and mapped what are now known as the Marshall Islands. Not that these islands were unknown in the late eighteenth century, indeed they were first recorded by Europeans as early as 1529 when seen by Spanish navigator Alvarez de Saavedra.

Micronesia – the name of Micronesia, like the name of the continent, is derived from the Greek where micros ‘small’ nesos ‘island’ with ia ‘territory’.

Nauru – the first European to visit the island were the crew of Captain John Fearn’s vessel on a whale hunting voyage in 1798. He referred to this as the Pleasant Island and the name stuck until the twentieth century. The local and current name seems to come from the local language where anaoero means ‘I go to the beach’ and a reference to the twelve tribes which inhabited the place having a culture entirely based on fishing and coconuts.

New Zealand – although associated with Captain James Cook, New Zealand was first sighted by the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who called them the Staaten Islands. This means ‘the land of the States’, ie the states of the Netherlands. However Dutch authorities were not impressed and changed the name the following year to Nieuw Zeeland ‘new sea land’ and inspired by the Dutch province of Zeeland. Terrains of the two places could not be more different – the Dutch Zeeland is as flat as it can be which the New Zealand is a mountainous volcanic region.

Palau – this name has come to English through a German version of the Spanish name. Just what this means depends upon which local words is the origin. Two very similar words, with very different meanings, have been suggested – hence this is either beluu or ‘village’ or if aibebelau is a reference to creation mythology.

Papua New Guinea – two former areas united in the modern name. The region of Papua is from a local term but of unknown origin and meaning. The ‘new’ of New Guinea came from Ortiz de Rez, a Portuguese explorer who consider the inhabitants similar in appearance to those he met in Guinea, West Africa.

Samoa – French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville named them the Navigator Islands in 1768. However the local name has always been Samoa, a reference to the large, now extinct, flightless birds which once inhabited the islands around here and named as ‘the place of moa’.

Solomon Islands – discovered and named in 1567 by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mandana de Neyra. Having met the natives and the gold ornaments they wore, he jumped to the conclusion this must be the legendary land of Ophir where, according to the Bible in Kings 1 chapter 9 verse 28, the gold was brought to King Solomon. It does instantly beg the question as to why he did not simply call them the Ophir Islands.

Tonga – in the many dialects and related tongues of Polynesia the word tonga means simply ‘south’, an apt description of these, the southernmost group of these islands.

Tuvalu –a group of nine islands settled by migrating humans some 3,000 years ago. Yet only eight were ever inhabited, hence the local tongue refers to them as ‘eight standing together’, a reference to the separate communities united by constant travel and trade by canoe.

Vanuatu – a local name derived from vanua ‘land’ or perhaps ‘home’ with tu ‘stand’, a reference to this new nation’s independence.

As previously the capital cities of each nation will be examined next time.

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