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Christopher Columbus and How America Got its Name

QUESTION: Christopher Columbus and How America Got its Name

ANSWER: Here’s the story of how America got its name.

Here’s the story of how America got its name.

At the same time that Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, one of Italy's future explorers, Amerigo Vespucci, was born in Florence. At the time of his birth, Florence was considered ground zero for the Renaissance. It is said that of the 1,000 most important artists and scientists in history, over 350 of them came from Florence, Italy. For example, Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, who created masterpieces like the Sistine Chapel, the Pieta at St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the Mona Lisa.

Anyway, while great works of art and science were being produced in Florence, Amerigo Vespucci, Italy’s most famous mapmaker, was commissioned by the king and queen of Spain to further investigate the new lands discovered by Christopher Columbus.

Between 1499 and 1502, Vespucci discovered the land mass we now call South America. He was convinced this land was part of a new continent, a bold contention at a time when other European explorers crossing the Atlantic Ocean thought they were reaching Asia. So it is Amerigo Vespucci who is generally given the credit for figuring out Christopher Columbus had found a whole new world and not India and China.

Christopher Columbus – Amerigo Vespucci and Martin Waldseemuller
In 1507, Martin Waldseemuller produced a world map on which he named the new continent "America." But why America? Well, Waldseemuller took Amerigo Vespucci's first name and Latinized it to "Americus" because at the time Latin was the universal language for European maps. But Americus is a man's name, and Mr. Waldseemuller as a highly-trained map-making professional knew that continents, like ships, are always female. So Waldseemuller took it upon himself to feminize "Americus" to "America," and the rest is history.

But you might ask who was "Amerigo" named after in the first place? Well, you can trace his name back to the somewhat obscure 11th-century Hungarian, Saint Emeric whose bones are still an object of veneration in Hungary today. So the name "America" stuck because other people copied Waldseemuller's map, and soon the name was in common use. That is why we have North and South America and not North and South Columbia.

In summary, two Spanish monarchs commissioned an Italian explorer to survey what they thought was India and China. And then a German mapmaker decided to call it "America," the Latinized female version of the Italian explorer whose name originated from an 11th century Hungarian saint.

And that is how America got its name.

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