From Zhōngguó and Sierra Leone to the village of Assington: How do places get their name?

Road sign directing drivers towards Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

You may have seen that I’ve been outlining fictional maps for fun. This interest in creating fictional worlds has also got me thinking about how places get their name.

Usually, I’ve named locations based on what sounded good or right at the time. Quite often they have a thematic connection to what I’m working on, a distortion of a placename that already exists or is a joke (or a mix of the three).

But I decided to do some research and learn about how real places acquire their names. I thought it would help make more informed choices about the fictional worlds I’m inventing.

Predominantly I’ve looked at country names. But stick around until the end where I look at the origins of places with funny names, like the village Assington.

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One of the first things I learned in my research was to be sceptical of local myths that attempt to explain the naming of a place. Attractive origin stories are often invented based on what people take from a name. The tale could be weaved out of the resemblance in sound or spelling to another name or word or its potential association with a particular person or event. But in most cases, the myths of how places acquired their name are just myths.

(Side note: my initial research turned up the term “folk etymology” to describe places that acquire myths based on the name. However, folk etymology is more commonly used as a linguistic term to mean “the transformation of words so as to give them an apparent relationship to better-known or better-understood words.” Rather “false etymology” is a better term for the myths invented based on a placename).

The second thing I learned was that countries were typically named after one of four things:

  1. A tribe who lives there
  2. A specific feature about the land
  3. A directional description
  4. An important person (typically a man)

1. Named after tribes

Of the four reasons countries are typically named, the greatest in number got their name for an older group of people who lived there. France, for example, is named after the Franks. Another example is Switzerland, named after the Schwyz people.

It’s speculated that Papua New Guinea was named for the descriptions of Melanesia’s native people. “Papua” reportedly means “frizzy-haired.” Whilst “Guinea” comes from Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retes comparing the appearance of Melanesia’s people to the people he had previously seen along the Guinea coast of Africa (i.e. they had dark skin) in the mid-16th-century.

The official name for the Republic of Korea in the Korean language is “Daehan Minguk.” The “Daehan” means “Great Han” or “Big Han”, thus named for the Han tribes from 2nd-century B.C.E.

Some places even incorporate a directional description into the name alongside a group of people, such as Vietnam, which means “Viet people of the south.”

2. Named after defining features of the land

Roughly a quarter of the world’s countries are named for some notable aspect of the land. Take Algeria, for example, which is named after its capital city: Algiers — meaning “the islands.”

Likewise, Sierra Leone is said to mean “lion mountains,” named by the Portuguese. However, rather than being named for the mammals known as lions, it is speculated that it is a reference to the roaring sound of thunder in the hills above Freetown. (Although the official origins for why the country was named for the “lion mountains” is contentious.)

Reportedly, the initial name for Iceland was Snæland or “snow land” because it was snowing when the first Norseman (named Naddod or Naddador) first reached the country in the 9th-century. Then came Flóki Vilgerðarson, a Viking whose daughter drowned en route before his livestock then starved to death. It’s said that Flóki, understandably despondent, climbed a mountain and saw a fjord full of icebergs, which led him to name the island as we know it today. Iceland also has one of those false etymologies I mentioned earlier, which goes that Viking settlers chose the name to discourage over-settlement. This has since been proven a myth.

3. Named after a directional description

Roughly 25 countries are named after a directional description. The first of which that comes to mind is of course Norway, meaning “northern way.”

Here in the West, we call China, well, China. But the Standard Chinese name is Zhōngguó, which translates to “central state” or “middle kingdom.” Furthermore, Nippon — the endonym for Japan — means “land of the rising sun.” This is in reference to the fact that Japan is east of China, i.e. in the direction of the sunrise from China’s point of view.

4. Named after important people

We come to the final reason a place gets its name: after a figure considered to be of importance. Examples include the Philippines (named after Spain’s 16th-century King Philip II), Bolivia (named after Venezuelan revolutionary Simón Bolívar) and Mauritius (named after Maurice of Nassau, the 16th-century Netherlands magistrate).

There’s also Israel, which is another name for Jacob in Hebrew — considered to be the patriarch of the Jewish people.

You will have noticed, all these places are named after men. There is only one country named after a real living woman: Saint Lucia — named after Saint Lucy of Syracuse. However, Ireland is also technically named after a woman: the Old Irish goddess Ériu.

Outliers

Canada is a bit of an outlier here. There are several theories as to its etymology, but it is now accepted that it derives from the St. Lawrence Iroquoian word “kanata,” meaning “village” or “settlement.” When Jacques Cartier met the native St. Lawrence Iroquians in the 16th-century, they described the place they were in as “kanata.” He mistakenly took it to mean the name for the whole country. (That’s the heavily truncated version of the story at least.)

It’s also important to note that Kanata is also the name of a major suburb in Ottawa — the Canadian capital. And Ottawa is derived from the Algonquin word “adawe,” which means “to trade.”

Germany is also a bit of an outlier due to having so many different names in different languages. Us Brits get Germany from “Germania,” which is a Roman Latin word that is most likely a loanword from Gaelic. Celts were in some parts of Europe before Roman settlement, so they would have named the tribes they encountered before the Romans.

However, Deutschland, as it is known natively, only became a country in the late 19th-century. Prussia, Bavaria and the surrounding principalities were united as one nation in 1871. Deutschland, in Old High German, translates to “land of the people.” But it had been known as Germany/Germania for so long that the name stuck, and many other nations named it similarly.

When it comes to Germany, its name in a country’s language depends on which Germanic tribe they encountered first. For the Spanish, it’s Alemania, which is similar to the French name, Allemagne — or Allemand. Niemcy is the Polish word for the country. It’s Tyskland in Swedish, which is also the case for the four other Nordic countries: Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland.

I could go on, but different names aside, Germany does adhere to the rule: it’s named for one of the four reasons.

What about towns in Essex?

After considering the etymology of country names, I was naturally interested in town names, too. My research here hasn’t been as extensive, and I only focused on towns local to me and towns/villages with funny names.

First, I looked at my hometown, Brentwood. I was taught in school that the town was once called Burntwood, and the name is apparently still visible on some 18th-century maps. However, “brent” was the Middle English word for “burnt.” And the name is presumed to derive from the fact it was a settlement in the part of the Forest of Essex (now known as Epping Forest) that would have covered the area, where charcoal burning was a major occupation.

Next, I looked into the etymology of where I went to university, Colchester. Turns out this is one of those towns with a false etymology. A popular theory was that it was named for King Coel — a prominent figure in Welsh literature and legend since the Middle Ages — but there’s zero academic evidence to support this.

It turns out, though, there is no conclusive answer to the town’s etymology. Perhaps this is a consequence of it being the oldest recorded town in Britain. Some etymologists contend that the town’s name derives from the Latin words “colonia” (referring to a foreign Roman settlement whose citizens have rights equivalent to those of Roman citizens) and “castra” — meaning “fortifications” (a reference to the town’s walls, which are the oldest in Britain). The River Colne that runs through the town also supposedly takes its name from “colonia.”

However, other etymologists are confident that the Colne’s name is of Celtic origin, not Roman. There were other rivers with names like Colne or Clun before the Romans arrived. This casts some doubt on the previous theory. Not sure I’m going to get a straight answer here.

Speaking of rivers influencing the names of towns. Chelmsford is derived from its former name, Ceolmaer’s Ford — simply meaning a ford over the River Ceolmaer. That river is now known as the River Chelmer.

In contrast, Romford is not named for the River Rom. The naming of the river is in fact a local back-formation from the name of the town. The town as first recorded in 1177 was “Romfort,” which is formed from Old English ‘rūm’ and ‘ford’ and means “the wide or spacious ford.”

What about the places with funny names?

Some places have some pretty unusual — and in some cases hilarious — names. The New Mexico city Truth or Consequences, formerly Hot Springs, is often noted as one of the most prominent places with an unusual name, which was the result of a radio show contest. However, that’s nothing in comparison to some of the towns and villages that share a name with a profane or dirty word in English.

Assington, for example, is a village in Suffolk. According to Eilert Ekwall, Swedish scholar of English language and author of several books on English placenames, the meaning of the village’s name has nothing to do with anyone’s rear-end. Rather it means “homestead of Assi.” Unfortunately, I can’t find much more on it than that.

Fugging is a village in Austria. But prior to its name change in 2020, it was known as Fucking. Much like in the case of Assington, fucking has very little to do with the village’s name. Turns out its 106 residents are not a raunchy lot, rather the name derives from the Bavarian nobleman who founded the settlement in the 6th-century: Focko. It was first recorded in historical sources as Vucchingen in 1070, as Fukching in 1303, then as Fugkhing in 1532, before it acquired the modern spelling Fucking in the 18th-century. Important to note: the ending “-ing” in old Germanic is a suffix denoting the people belonging to the root of the word to which it is attached. Thus, Fucking means “(place of) Focko’s people.”

A southwestern commune in France gets its name from the Gaulish words “condate” and “magos,” which when combined become “Condatomagos” — meaning “market or field, of the confluence.” And that commune’s name is Condom.

In the parish of Birsay on the Mainland of the Orkney Islands in Scotland, there’s a settlement that shares a name with a vulgar term for vagina. Its name originates from the Old Norse “þveit,” meaning a “small parcel of land.” The Norse word commonly produces the placename element Thwaite in English — a fairly common element in field names. But in Scotland, it’s Twatt!

There are so many more I could list. Wikipedia has a whole section dedicated to humourous place names with other examples that include the city of Cumming in (the US state of) Georgia, Pee Pee Township in Ohio, the community Intercourse in Pennsylvania, the Newfoundland town of Dildo in Canada, the Yorkshire Wolds village known as Wetwang, and many more.

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I had so much fun researching this subject, and I don’t just mean looking into the funny places. As someone who loves inventing new worlds, this is all valuable information to me. I hope you got something from this, too.

Coming up with fictional locations is going to be a completely different experience for me now. And I cannot wait to think up some fantastical lands to fill with interesting names.