The story of the naming of America has been told before – not surprisingly considering the object central to the story, Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 world map, is one of the most important treasures in the Geography and Map Division. The name was bestowed by the mapmaker to show his support for Amerigo Vespucci’s argument that the recently-discovered shores were indeed a separate continent (or two, depending on your preference). Into one of the woodblocks, roughly in what’s today northern Argentina, Waldseemüller had carved the name “America,” and from my perspective five hundred years later, it appears to have stuck.
The Americas are just two (or one) of the world’s major landmasses. How did the others come by their names?
Names for three of the continents – Africa, Asia, and Europe – appear on early European world maps such as this mid-15th century Mappamundi. These are names of considerable antiquity and, in slightly variable forms, are common to many languages across Europe and the world.
Both “Asia” and “Africa” have their origins far back in the mists of time, but each term initially referred to a much smaller area than the names do today. Asia was a small region in western Anatolia, and eventually a Roman province of the same name, as seen in this map of the Roman Empire, made for a 19th-century family atlas:
This world map by Sebastian Münster was made to accompany his later editions of Cosmographia, an adaptation of a 2nd-century work by Claudius Ptolemy. While the map had been updated to reflect new discoveries in the Americas (and conjectural southern lands yet to be discovered), many place names in the Old World reflect Classical nomenclature. Here, “Asia” appears twice, as it’s applied to both Anatolia and to the Asian continent as a whole:
The name “Africa” was also originally applied to a Roman province, located on the continent’s north coast in modern-day Libya and Tunisia. On our 19th-century map of the Roman Empire, it appears as “Africa Propria” – Africa proper – and is surrounded by the provinces of Mauritania, Numidia, and Aegyptus.
In an 18th-century French map which reconstructs the empire of Alexander the Great, a similar region is labeled “Libya, quae cognominatur Africa” – Libya, also known as Africa. It’s shown, synecdochically, as “Pars Africae” – part of Africa.
The continent of Europe likely got its name from the ancient Greek myth of the Phoenician princess Europa, who was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull, and later became the mother of King Minos. Images of the mythical Europa appear on many maps, such as this map of Europe in Theatrum orbis terrarum, Abraham Ortelius’s genre-defining world atlas:
The name “Australia” was a much later invention, deriving from a common European assumption, borne of the expanding geographical consciousness of European societies after their first travels to the Americas, that there remained large landmasses lurking in the oceans, yet to be discovered. The most logical place for one of these conjectural continents was in the far south, of which they had the least knowledge and which remained the emptiest section of their maps. Beginning around the 15th century, continents labeled “terra australis” – southern land – appeared on maps, usually followed by the word “incognita” – unknown – but sometimes even “nondum cognita” – not yet known.
In the early 1600s, when Europeans started surveying the coastline of the Australian continent, the name usually applied to it was “New Holland.” This 1659 world map by Joan Blaeu uses the Latin equivalent, “Hollandia Nova:”
Names for the continent – and for parts of it – varied. It wasn’t until around the turn of the 19th century that “Australia” began to settle in as the standard. French cartographer Adrien-Hubert Brué titled his 1826 map Carte de l’Australie, yet still labeled the landmass as “Nouvelle Hollande,” and in the text below this label, acknowledged the use of two other names, “Notasie” and “Terre Australe.”
Around this same time, the existence of Antarctica, the true southernmost continent, was broadly confirmed. As a name based on the “terra australis incognita” of old was now more or less firmly entrenched farther north, another term was used for the southern polar continent, based on its opposition to the north polar region of the Arctic. The Arctic itself had been named after the Greek word for “bear” – arktos – likely after the constellation Ursa Major, but the abundance of bears in the Arctic regions couldn’t have hurt.
According to the National Library of Scotland, cartographer John George Bartholomew was the first to employ the label “Antarctica” on a map, in 1886. The map below was created by Bartholomew and published a few years later in 1898. Centered on the south pole, it displays the southern continent in all its icy glory, bearing prominently the label “Antarctica.”
From these diverse origins, the names of the 7 (or 6 – or even 8) continents have become standard on English-language maps since the turn of the 20th century. Resources in the Geography and Map Division can help you research the history of place names all around the world.