The Word of the Week is — America


In my last post I was contemplating the eponyms, words derived from the name of a person. I didn’t mention the most famous, the name of our country, derived from Amerigo Vespucci. As every schoolchild learns, the explorer made several voyages to the “New World,” and a contemporary mapmaker thought, in error, that he’d discovered the entire continent. Hence, a beautiful new map was published with his name emblazoned on it and the moniker stuck. (See The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite books.)

As usual, brief research of the etymology uncovers a dispute about this simple explanation. Some detractors claim it was no accident that Vespucci got the credit for discoveries he didn’t make. They say he was a dilettante whose given name was “Alberigo” and that he changed it later to “Amerigo” to match the name that was already in use by local people for areas in Central America. Thus, America was not named for Vespucci, but “vice versa, that Vespucci had, so to speak, re-named himself after his discovery.”

While giving the theory considerable discussion, that same article seems to conclude that it’s incorrect, that Vespucci’s name was slandered. He really was named Amerigo and he was a serious navigator who never tried to claim the discoveries made by others. His main contribution to the “America” story was conveying the news that the newly discovered land was not Asia but a previously unknown land mass. He preferred the name “Mundus Novas.”

The discovery of this “New World” led to the introduction of many new words for things heretofore unseen, and the usual pattern was to take two English words and combine them: bullfrog, grasshopper, rattlesnake. A good excuse for my all-American illustration of the watermelon.

The Americans came up with other colorful words that stayed with us, at least in American usage: hornswaggle, rambunctious and cahoots. Bryson likes “O.K.” as the greatest contribution from the Americans to the international English community. It’s understood in almost every nation around the world and yet there’s no agreed spelling (we use O.K., OK and okay) and the origins of that term are debated. The term first appeared in print in 1839 and the most plausible explanation is, believe it or not, that it’s a contraction of the expression “oll korrect.” It was a fad, making a joke out of deliberate misspellings.

That one was a deliberate misnomer, but “America” was a genuine mistake.