• Germany's news in English
 
app_header_v3
The Germans who named America - and then regretted it
Photo: US Library of Congress.

The Germans who named America - and then regretted it

Emma Anderson · 11 Mar 2016, 09:36

Published: 11 Mar 2016 09:36 GMT+01:00
Updated: 11 Mar 2016 09:36 GMT+01:00

Christopher Columbus is often credited with first "discovering" the Americas for Europe, despite the fact that the poor sap thought he was somewhere in Asia most of the time.

But back in the 16th century, another man who also braved the Atlantic around the same time was believed by many across Europe to have been the first European on New World soil.

Engraving depicting Amerigo Vespucci in the New World, by Theodor de Bry in 1592. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

So it makes sense that North and South America would derive their names from that clever cartographer and adventurer, Amerigo Vespucci.

But it wasn't Vespucci himself who gave this land its current name, nor did some almighty council of elders gather to decide which great individual the unknown New World would be named after.

It was actually by chance that two young German men divined the name "America" that now describes the home of some 970 million people - only to later regret it.

Two German mapmakers, one idea that stuck

Left: Martin Waldseemüller. Right: Matthias Ringmann. Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

Around 1502, a letter by Vespucci entitled Mundus Novus (New World) was published and reprinted across Europe. It described his voyage to South America between 1501 and 1502 and recognized that this was previously unknown land.

The letter became a "little blockbuster" throughout Italy, Germany, France and beyond, and many believed him to be the first European to find this New World, as author Felipe Fernandez-Armesto describes in his book Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America.

By 1507, Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer, was tasked by academics in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges, France with creating an updated world map, based in part on Vespucci's findings, along with the help of fellow German Matthias Ringmann.

The two wanted to pay tribute to Vespucci and decided to use the feminine version of the navigator's Christian name, Americus.

"Now indeed these regions are fairly well known and Amerigo Vespucci has found another, fourth part, for which I see no reason why anyone could properly disapprove of a name derived from that of Amerigo, the discoverer, a man of sagacious genius," they wrote in commentary about the map.

"A suitable form would be Amerige, meaning [in Greek] Land of Amerigo, or America, since Europe and Asia have received women's names."

But rather than going for the Greek ending they made it Latin. So over what we now call Brazil, Waldseemüller wrote for the very first time "America".

"The naming of America was an act by an individual who had no authority, and it succeeded because it filled a gap and was quickly adopted by other cartographers," Michael Goodchild, geography professor with the Vespucci Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The Local.

The two young Germans never intended the title to apply to the entirety of the land mass, but the map's uniqueness made it highly in-demand, also serving as the model for the world's first printed globe.
 
'America' becomes a regret
Story continues below…

But not long after the maps became a smash hit, Waldseemüller regretted it and tried to take back the name America.

He ultimately lost confidence in Vespucci as being the first European to set foot in the New World and on a 1513 map, he called the territory "Terra Incognita" or "Unknown Land" instead.

"This land with the adjoining islands was found by Columbus, of Genoa, at the command of the king of Castile," he wrote in an annotation to the map.

But alas he could not undo the ripple in history that he had set into motion.

The name America caught on and by 1538, Gerardus Mercator made the first map applying the term to both North and South America.

As Fernandez-Armesto wrote: "The tradition was secure, the decision irreversible."

For more news from Germany, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

Emma Anderson (emma.anderson@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
This Week in History
75 years since one of Holocaust's worst massacres
Photo: DPA

On Thursday, German president Joachim Gauck spoke in Kiev 75 years after the Nazis slaughtered 33,771 Jews during one of the worst single massacres of the Holocaust.

Six things you need to know about troubled Deutsche Bank

Shares in Deutsche bank plunged on Friday morning, dragging down other European banks and markets worldwide. Here are six things to know about Germany's biggest lender.

Deutsche Bahn jacks up prices for first time in 3 years
Photo: DPA

Germany's main rail provider, the state-owned Deutsche Bahn (DB), announced on Friday that it will raise prices on long-distance train travel.

Baby found alive in suitcase with skeleton in Hanover
File photo: DPA.

A baby has been found alive, along with the skeleton of another infant inside of a suitcase in Hanover, police reported on Friday.

Morocco to speed up repatriation of illegal migrants
Photo: DPA

Morocco has agreed to streamline the procedures for the repatriation of citizens living illegally in Germany, the royal court said late on Thursday.

890,000 refugees arrived in Germany last year - not 1.1m
Photo: DPA

Previous reports had suggested that around 1.1 million people entered Germany to seek asylum last year. But now the German government has confirmed the number was actually lower.

Racist attacks cast cloud over Dresden Unity Day planning
A police vehicle in Dresden. Photo: DPA.

As Dresden prepares to host Germany’s national Unity Day celebrations on Monday, the capital of the eastern state of Saxony is upping security after a mosque was targeted by a homemade bomb.

Sinking Deutsche Bank stock sends shock across Europe
Photo: DPA

Shares in Germany's biggest lender Deutsche Bank plummeted on the Frankfurt stock market on Friday, dragging other European banks and global markets down with it, after reports some customers were pulling money out.

The Local List
10 things you never knew about German reunification
Reunification celebrations in Hanover in 2014. Photo: DPA

With German Unity Day (October 3rd) happening on Monday, Germans are looking forward to a three-day weekend. But did you know these facts about reunification and German Unity Day?

Munich pharmacy’s nighttime porno show draws crowd
Photo: DPA

When a police patrol in Munich's Sendlinger Tor area noticed a crowd gathered outside a pharmacy window they went to investigate. But the onlookers weren't interested in a new line of flu medicine.

Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Germany's 10 most Instagram-able places
Sponsored Article
Why Jordan is the ‘Different’ East
Lifestyle
15 pics that prove Germany is absolutely enchanting in autumn
Lifestyle
10 German films you have to watch before you die
Lifestyle
6 things about Munich that’ll stay with you forever
Sponsored Article
Retiring abroad: ensuring your health is covered
Lifestyle
10 pieces of German slang you'll never learn in class
National
Seven great reasons to stay in Germany this September
National
Ouch! Naked swimmer hospitalized after angler hooks his penis
National
Six reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'
Sponsored Article
Life in Jordan: 'Undiscovered treasure'
National
15 tell-tale signs you’ll never quite master German
Culture
7 American habits that make Germans very, very uncomfortable
Sponsored Article
The Inner Circle: the secret to dating in Berlin
Rhineland
Story of a fugitive cow who outwitted police for weeks before capture
Culture
Eleven famous Germans with surnames that'll make your sides split
Lifestyle
The best ways to get a visa as an American in Germany
Gallery
Germany's 17 Olympic gold medals in pictures
14 facts you never knew about the Brandenburg Gate
Society
Ten times Germans proved they really, really love beer
National
Six things you need to know when moving to Germany
Travel
These 10 little-known German towns are a must see
International
German scientists prove birds can sleep while flying
Technology
London v. Berlin: Which is better for startups?
Lifestyle
13 mortifying mistakes German learners always make
6,718
jobs available
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd