Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Countries Got Their Names.

To most of us ignoramuses, Turkey is a textured bath towel. Tonga is a vintage horse carriage. Monaco is a salt-kissed biscuit. Congo is a misspelled African drum. Qatar is a BSNL lady saying ‘you’re on hold’. And Panama is a nostalgic whiff of strong tobacco.

Being clueless folks who cannot pinpoint West Indies or West Mambalam on a map, I thought it might help, if we took a crash course to improve our GQ (Geographic Quotient). Hence the excursion into country names.

Before we suit up for the deep dive, let’s first do a quick head count of the nations. According to reliable sources, at the moment, there are 196 sovereign states in our little world. When we put them under the microscope, you’ll uncover 5 types of nomenclature.

Type 1 is what I call the ‘Tribal Nation’. Simply put, they are nations that have been named after tribes of yore. Germany (from ‘Garim’ - a noisy Celtic tribe), France (from the spear throwing ‘Franks’), England (land of ‘Angles’), Iran (‘Aryans’), Afghanistan (‘Avaghanis’ or horseriders) and Kyrgyzstan (land of ‘forty tribes’) are celebrated case studies in this genre.

Type 2 is the ‘Dynasty Nation’. These are countries christened after kings and dynasties. China (a nod to the Qin dynasty), Korea (‘Goryeo’ lineage), Saudi Arabia (‘Saud’ family), Egypt (Home of the ‘Ptah’), Philippines (a tribute to ‘Prince Philip’ of Austria) and Mozambique (after Sheikh ‘Mussa Ben Mbiki’) are some eloquent illustrations.

Type 3 is the ‘Topographic Nation’. Here, some prominent topographic feature might have triggered the moniker. Examples include Malaysia (Tamil & Latin for ‘Hilltown’), Croatia (derived from the Indo-Iranian ‘Hrvati’ or River Saraswati), Bahamas (‘Shallow Sea’), Netherlands (‘Lowlands’) and Ukraine (‘Borderlands’).

Type 4 is the ‘Evocative Nation’. Countries of this kind sport meaning-rich names like Uzbekistan (Home of the Free), Burkina Faso (Land of Honest Men), Japan (Land of the Rising Sun), Costa Rica (Rich Coast) and Liberia (Liberty).

Type 5 is the ‘Trivial Nation’. Or a country with a fun name story. Italy (from ‘Vitulis’ or sons of bull god), Barbados (‘bearded ones’) and Spain (land of rabbits) typify this. Don’t you wish we had more such quirky names?