The Etymologies of 10 World Nations

Do you know which country is named after the second-highest mountain in Africa? How about the nation renamed in the 20th century to better reflect the people living there? Read on to find out!


Algeria: Derived from the country’s capital city of Algiers, this name comes from the Arabic al-Jazair, meaning “the islands.”  This refers to four coastal islands that were joined to the mainland in the 16th century.

Argentina: Derived from the Latin argentinus, meaning “of silver”, the country takes its name from the mistaken assumption the Spanish conquistadors had that the Plata Basin contained sources of silver.

Canada: Adopted in the 1560s, this name is a Latinized form of Kanata, the Iroquois word for “village” or “settlement.”

China: While the etymology is somewhat unclear, the country’s name most likely originates in the Sanskrit Cina, a term used to refer to the people living in the area now known as China.  The Latinized name may also be derived from the name of the Qin dynasty, which ruled in the 3rd century BCE.

Germany: Most nations have not referred to Germany as Deutschland since the times of ancient Rome, when Julius Caesar adopted the Latin name Germania.

India: This country takes its name from one of its most ancient and identifying natural landmarks: the Indus River.  The Sanskrit word for “river” is sindhu.

Iraq: For millennia, lower Mesopotamia was known as the “land of Iraq”, meaning “fertile, well-watered, and deeply-rooted” in Arabic, and reflecting the area’s fertile soil.

Kenya: Originating in the name of the country’s most famous mountain, Mount Kenya, the name was derived from the words kere nyaga, meaning “white mountain.”

Sweden: Meaning “land of the Swedes”, this name most likely draws from the Proto-Germanic sweba, meaning “free, independent” or geswion, meaning “kinsman.”

Thailand: Officially called Siam until 1939, and then again from 1945 to 1949, the country was renamed to reflect the Thai people who lived there.  The name Siam is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning “dark” or “brown.”

Photo Credit: Patrick Barry