Covid-19 advice:

Where you can go on holiday | Check FCDO updates before you travel

Find out more

What’s in a name? These are the origins of your favourite places' names

December 7, 2018

Ever wondered how America got its name? Or why they call it Budapest? We've done some digging to discover the etymologies of ten famous destinations. Some might surprise you!

Tenerife

Tenerife may now be dominated by sun loungers and resorts, but before the Spanish island became the booming package holiday hotspot it is today, its defining feature – Mount Teide – put it on the map.

The snow-capped volcano dominates Tenerife’s landscape, leading the Ancient Romans to dub the island Nivaria after the Latin word for the white stuff.

Following in this wintry theme were the neighbouring La Palma natives. They’re said to have seen the white-topped mountain from afar and called the island teni ife, meaning ‘white mountain’. The ‘r’ came with Spanish colonisation and we’ve known it as Tenerife ever since.

The Canaries

Tenerife may have origins elsewhere, but the wider ‘Canary Islands’ moniker has quite a different beginning – and it’s not as obvious as you’d think.

Because while you may be singing after booking a trip to the Canaries, it’s not the yellow songbird that gives this Spanish archipelago its name.

It’s actually derived from the large packs of wild dogs that once roamed freely across the islands. The dogs, or canariae in Latin, are believed to have inspired a Mauretanian king to name the islands Canaria, a word still used today in Gran Canaria.

New York

The City that Never Sleeps, the Big Apple, NYC… New York’s nicknames are just as recognisable as the city itself.

But for a brief time, it went by a surprisingly different name – New Amsterdam – and vestiges of the Dutch influence remain in the city today, primarily in the form of Harlem (Haarlem) and Brooklyn (Breukelen).

Its current tag came sometime after, when the English conquered the area, naming it after the Duke of York.

Majorca and Menorca

While the Balearics gets its name from the Phoenician god, Baal, the names of these two beach destinations have a far less exciting origin.

They come from Latin roots – insula maior and insula minor – meaning ‘the larger one’ and ‘the smaller one’.

Holidaymakers looking to travel to the Balearics, take note! Majorca and Menorca’s names might well be indicative of your holiday experience. The former is indeed bigger and has more tourist attractions, but the latter is perfect for a quiet escape.

Amsterdam

It’s common for places to get their names from some distinctive nearby geographical feature. The city sits on the Amstel River – that’s the first part of the name – and at its centre is Dam Square, once an actual dam.

What’s interesting about Amsterdam is its name hasn’t morphed drastically over its history. In the 12th century, it was known as ‘Aemstelredamme’ and by the 14th, this had be simplified to ‘Aemsterdam’.

Rome

Thousands of years of history make the true origins of Rome difficult to trace, but there’s a fascinating and, as was the way of the Ancient Romans, bloody legend that could explain the moniker.

It involves two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who fought over where a new city should stand. Unable to agree on a site, Romulus murdered his brother and named the city after himself.

You’ll see the pair immortalised in statues found across the city, represented as two young twins suckled by a she-wolf.

Istanbul

Few places have changed their names within living memory. Istanbul’s switch, formally adopted in 1928, was so iconic, it’s been commemorated in the creatively-titled ‘50s tune, ‘Istanbul (Not Constantinople)’.

Of course, you’d expect the former seat of old world powers (both the Roman and Ottoman empires operated out of here) to have a long history, and before it was Constantinople, the Turkish city was known as Byzantium.

Despite this rich and varied history, the meaning of Istanbul is humble. It’s thought to have derived from the Greek phrase for ‘to the city’ and often shortened to simply ‘The City’.

Budapest

The etymology of Budapest is murky at best. Tenuous links have been made to words both Turkic and Slavic in origin but it wasn’t until 1873 that Budapest came into being.

The name united three towns. Two, Buda and Obuda, sat on the west side of the Danube River while the other, Pest sat on the east. 

The distinction between two of the sides, Buda and Pest remains today and travellers to the Hungarian capital will often hear this fun fact repeated!

America

It’s a big deal to have a country named after you, especially if your achievements dwell in the shadows of some other bigwig. It’s the fate the befell Amerigo Vespucci, a 16th Century Italian explorer and cartographer whose work in ‘discovering' the USA is usually overlooked in favour of Christopher Columbus.

He suggested that the land mass’ eastern edge belonged not to Asia, as Columbus believed, but was in fact an entirely different continent.

He was proved correct after his death and it’s said the continent is named after him in memory of his work.

Iceland and Greenland

Like Rome, Iceland has a fancy fable about the origin of its name. It’s said Viking settlers happened upon the island and, wanting to keep the rich discovery to themselves, spread word that it was little more than an icy wasteland. They also hinted at a verdant land north of their newfound island, or as we know it today, Greenland.

Also like Rome, it’s unlikely this story has any basis in fact. It’s been instead suggested that Iceland was once known as Snæland or ‘snow land’ or Arnarfjörður, which roughly translates to a ‘fjord full of icebergs’.

Greenland, meanwhile, has its history etched out in the so-called Icelandic Sagas. They say a native Icelander was exiled for manslaughter and, upon finding the larger island, named it Grœnland or Greenland to entice more settlers.


Have a comment or question about this article? You can contact us on Twitter or Facebook.

Latest travel tips and advice

Read more from the blog
Sign up. Be inspired. Travel.

Subscribe now for hand-picked holiday deals, inspiration and the latest travel tips, straight to your inbox.

Staying safe abroad

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) provides valuable up-to-date travel advice for British citizens abroad. It is the best resource for reliable safety and security information. You can also find other important details, such as local laws, passport information and visa requirements. Stay safe abroad – check the FCDO before you travel.

For the latest FCDO advice, follow @FCDOtravelGovUK and Facebook.com/FCDOTravel.