Sunday, 4 January 2015

Origins of Place Names: Italy

Having blogged samples of my books on English place names and also examined the etymologies of the nations of the world and their respective capitals I thought it time I cast my net a little wider. As English place names share some links to other tongues it would be interesting to see if any of the elements contributing to our place names could be found elsewhere. After France and Germany, this time a look at the largest Italian cities.

Rome stands on the River Tiber, a name coined by the Romans and from a Celtic meaning of 'water'. The city itself was named from the River Ruma, an earlier name for the same river and one of Etruscan origin thought to mean simply 'to flow'.

Milan is seen in a document from 222 BC as Mediolanum, from the Gaulish medio 'middle' lan 'plain'. That plain being where the River Olona flows.

Naples comes from its Greek name of Neapolis or 'new town', a seemingly oxymoronic name for one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. The Greeks were here four thousand years ago. Any place named as 'new', irrespective of the language, should be seen as a comparison with an earlier settlement - in the case of Naples this was the town of Cumae.

Turin is in an area once inhabited by the Ligurian tribe called the Taurini, their name thought to be related to the Celtic tur meaning 'water' and a reference to the River Po. The Romans knew the place as Augusta Taurinorum, this place having connections with the Emperor Augustus.

Palermo another Italian city having Greek origins, they referring to this place as Panormos from the Greek pan 'all, every' and hormos 'harbour'. This is understood as speaking of a harbour where anything could be traded and one of seventeen of this name around the Mediterranean Sea at one point, hence it perhaps should not be considered a 'name' in the modern sense.

Genoa is thought to originate in the Latin genua meaning 'knees' and used to describe the arch formed by the coastline around the Ligurian Sea.

Bologna was known as Bononia 2,500 years ago, a name from Boii. This Germanic tribe get their name from the early Indo-European buoi 'hunters'.

Florence was known to the Romans as Colonia Florentia or 'flowering colony'. This should probably not be taken literally but seen as 'flourishing'. Earlier the Etruscan name was Fluentia or 'flowing', it being between two rivers.

Bari is another water name, this from Larin baris meaning 'boat, barge' and speaking of the harbour.

Catania may be connected to the Phoenician katon 'small', a comparison to Syracuse. However it is difficult to see how this could have given the Latin name of Catinus, which would be understood as 'gulf, bowl, basin, bay' and a reference to the distinctive topography. During the tenth century Arabic influence gave the area two names: Medinat-Al-Fil or 'the city of the elephant' and Balad-Al-Fil 'the country of the elephant', a pointer to the lava sculpture of the elephant of Piazza Duomo's Fountain.

Venice is named after the Illyrian tribe known as the Veneti, their name is probably from Indo-European but could either be a word meaning 'friend' or perhaps simply 'water'.

Verona is uncertain but may come from an Indo-European root related to Sanskrit var meaning 'water', an apt description of a place nestled in a bend of the River Adige.

Note the spellings of these places are English, as the piece was written in English.

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