Where Did the Continents Get Their Names?

Where did each of the seven continents get their names? The answer involves the sunrise and sunset, a big bear and a little bear, and three mythological queens.

Africa

Africa is the oldest inhabited territory on the planet. Many peoples of Africa, including the Ethiopians, Nubians, Moors, and Numidians, anciently referred to the landmass as Alkebulan—a name that meant “mother of mankind.” Other peoples variously called it Corphye, Ortigia, Libya, or Ethiopia.

The name Africa came about from ancient Romans and Greeks who sought to describe the lands across the Mediterranean Sea—and who generalized from their experience of only a small part of the continent.

There are several possible origins for the name Africa:

  • Afri was the name of a tribe native to Libya that become the Latin word used to describe all the inhabitants of northern Africa west of the Nile. It originates from the Berber word ifri, meaning “cave” and designating the Afri as cave dwellers. The Latin suffix -ica (or possibly -terra) was then added to denote “a land.”
  • The Greek word aphrike means the land “without cold.”
  • The Roman word aprica means “sunny.”
  • The Phoenicians may have called it the “land of corn and fruit,” or friqi and pharika.
  • The Arabic word afar (“dust”) or afir (“dried up by the sun”) may have been the root that led to the words afara (“to be dusty”) and afrīqā.

Additional theories attempt to trace the name of Africa, but the most sound of those known today is the Latin Afri-ica.

Europe

Like the other continents, there are several theories as to the origin of the name Europe.

The first and most common is that it comes from Europa of Greek mythology. Europa was a Phoenician princess who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. She had three sons with him, including King Minos of Crete. In Greek thought, lands and rivers were often associated with female figures or watched over by a goddess, making Europa the patron of the European continent. Europa as a geographic term is first found in a Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo, referencing the western shore of the Aegean Sea.

Europa and the Bull – Red-Figure Stamnos, Tarquinia Museum, ca. 480 BCE.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Europa comes from the words eurus, meaning “wide, broad,” and ops, meaning “eye, face, countenance.” Together, the word indicates a broad countenance. Words meaning broad had been used as an epithet for the Earth as a divine figure in Proto-Indo-European religion.

Another theory seeks a Semitic root for Europe. The Akkadian term erebu, meaning “west” and therefore an association with sunset, may have been the origin for Europe. Europe was the land of the setting sun, in contrast to asu, the “east” or “country of sunrise.”

Asia

As mentioned previously, the land of Asia may have been named Asu for the word for “east” or “sunrise.”

However, there are other proposed etymologies. The concept of Asia came from Greek civilization, which divided the world then known to them into Europe, Asia, and Libya. It was thought that these three names all derived from Greek queens: Europa (Princess of Phoenicia who had a relationship with Zeus), Asia (a nymph or titan who was married to Prometheus, the god of fire), and Libya (Queen Libya or Lamia of Egypt, who bore two sons with Poseidon).

The ancient Greek word asia was first used to refer to the eastern bank of the Aegean Sea as well as the region of Anatolia. The Romans used this term to refer to Lydia. It is thought that asia came from the Aegean word asis, meaning “muddy” as a descriptor of the shores of the Aegean Sea. A Hittite group of 22 ancient states in Asia Minor formed a confederation called Assuwa, which may have been informed by the existing word asia.

In eastern Asia, Chinese, Korean, and Mongol civilizations, among others, had their own names for their territory. Asia was later extended to include all of the continent of Asia we know today.

North and South America

The indigenous peoples of the Americas each had a name for the place they called home. The Mohawk people called it “Anowara:kowa,” meaning the Great Turtle. The Wendat likewise may have referred to the land with a word meaning Turtle Island—both owing to a rich mythological tradition that viewed the earth as a turtle that rose from the sea. The Mexica nation knew the land of North America as Anahuac, which means “close to us.” This signifies the deep connection between the land and the people’s hearts and kinship ties. Further, in some areas of South America, Abya Yala was the term used for the land, and it means “Land of Full Maturity,” “Land of Life,” or “Fruitful Land.”

During the Age of Exploration, Spanish explorers initially referred to this area as the Indies, believing incorrectly that it was part of eastern Asia.

The name that was eventually given to these indigenous lands by European conquerors was the Americas, after Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was an Italian merchant and navigator who set sail for the lands across the Atlantic from 1497 to 1504, landing in what is now Brazil. He embarked on two voyages under the flags of Portugal and Spain and purportedly produced two brochures with fantastical descriptions of the lands he explored. Though these accounts have been called into question, they were important for raising awareness about the “New World,” as he called it.

At the time, Vespucci explored what is now South America. Most of North America was still unknown to Europeans. In 1507, the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller honored Vespucci’s accomplishments by naming these lands America, using a Latinized form of Amerigo. Waldseemüller produced a long-awaited world map that updated geographic knowledge following from the Age of Exploration. Later cartographers followed suit, and the landmass was officially named America by 1532. Vespucci likely didn’t even know about Waldseemüller’s map before his death in 1507. However, many supporters of Christopher Columbus at the time felt that the continents of the New World should have been named after him and that Vespucci or his supporters had stolen the spotlight.

The Italian name Amerigo means “home ruler.” The Spanish name Colón, or Columbus, means “dove.” Neither one adequately expresses what the New World was to the European settlers—it was not their home, and it surely was not a place of peace.

In the English-speaking world, America was used to refer to the entire landmass from Canada to Chile, which was considered a single continent. This served the United States’ geopolitical interests as it sought to dominate the Western Hemisphere. It wasn’t until the 1950s that geographers in the United States insisted on separating North America and South America.

Today, some indigenous peoples in America—who peopled these lands long before European explorers, conquistadors, and colonizers stepped foot—object to the term Americas. In 1977, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (Consejo Mundial de Pueblos Indígenas) proposed using the indigenous term Abya Yala instead of America when referring to the continent as an objection to colonialism.

Australia

There is no one Aboriginal term for the landmass of Australia. Rather, hundreds of linguistically diverse tribes named various places where they lived and interacted.

When the landmass was settled by the Dutch, they began to call it New Holland. English settlers tried to give it the name New South Wales.

The name Australia is derived from the Latin term australis, meaning “southern” in reference to the auster, the south wind. A theory in early pre-modern geography held that a vast continent known as Terra Australis was yet to be discovered in the far south of the globe. The idea was that there must be landmasses in the southern half of the globe to balance out the landmasses in the northern half.

The hypothetical continent of Terra Australis had yet to be confirmed, so botanists and explorers began applying the term to a continent that had been discovered in the southern hemisphere. The English explorer Matthew Flinders most famously used the name Australia in 1804, and it became the continent’s official name in 1817.

The geographic region of Oceania, named for several landmasses in the Pacific Ocean, is sometimes regarded as a continent rather than Australia. It includes Australia, New Zealand, Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

Antarctica

Maori oral histories tell of a crew of explorers led by Hui Te Rangiora who navigated the Antarctic waters in the seventh century, describing the unfamiliar appearance of icebergs as jagged rocks that grew out of the sea and snow as powdered arrowroot. In January 1820, a team of explorers further proved the existence of Terra Australis: a Russian expedition caught sight of an ice shelf, and later that year, American explorers set foot on the continent.

Map of the hypothetical Antarctic region, 1657.
Jan Janssonius (1588–1664), Geheugen van Nederland, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Greek cartographer Marinus of Tyre called this hypothetical landmass Antarctica as early as the second century BCE. The word Antarctica comes from the Greek anti- and arktos. In the Northern Hemisphere, the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (ursa being the Latin word for “bear”) point to the North Star. The northernmost part of the world, the Arctic Circle, was named for the great and little bears.

Antarctica thus means “opposite the bear”—it is opposite (anti) the Arctic. On a related note, the Arctic is home to polar bears, while Antarctica has penguins but no bears.

The continent first received its official name as early as 1840 in a conference of Italian scientists, and the term was adapted for used in English, French, and other languages.

Sources

Joyce Chepkemoi, “How Did Australia Get Its Name?” World Atlas, October 3, 2017. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-did-australia-get-its-name.html.

Antonia Čirjak, “What Was the Original Name of Africa?” World Atlas, June 16, 2020. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-was-the-original-name-of-africa.html.

Sabrina Imbler, “The Maori Vision of Antarctica’s Future,” New York Times, July 2, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/02/science/antarctica-maori-exploration.html.

Rotich Kiptoo Victor, “What Are the Origins of the Names Arctic and Antarctica?” World Atlas, April 24, 2018. https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-are-the-origins-of-the-names-arctic-and-antarctica.html.

Wikipedia, “History of Antarctica,” “Europa: Consort of Zeus,” “Africa,” “Asia,” “List of Continent Name Etymologies,” “Naming of the Americas.” Accessed September 2022.

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