Thursday, 24 July 2014

Why is America called 'America'?

Americans celebrated Independence Day this month. Yet, how many of us wondered where the name 'America' comes from? Why is America called 'America' if Christopher Columbus first discovered the continent? It’s all down to two men called Amerigo Vespucci and Martin Waldseemüller.

'America' derives from the navigator and explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci travelled to the New World in 1499 and 1502. But unlike Columbus, Vespucci wrote about it and his accounts published in 1502 and 1504 were widely read in Europe. Columhbus was hindered because he believed he had found another way to Asia and failed to realise that North America was a totally new continent. Vespucci did realise this.

The discovery of the New World meant maps had to be drawn and redrawn as the size and vastness of America was realised. In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing the Universalis Cosmographia (Universal Cosmography which is still displayed in the library of the Congress Building in Washington DC). Waldseemüller used Vespucci’s published travelogues to depict what he thought the new world looked like.

All countries were seen as feminine so Waldseemüller used a feminised Latin form of Amerigo: America.  As cartographers tended to copy each other, Columbus was left off the map even though he made Europe aware of the land across the Atlantic.

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