Naming of the Americas

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The naming of the Americas, or America occurred shortly after Christopher Columbus's voyage to the Americas in 1492. It is generally accepted that the name derives from Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian explorer, who explored the new continents in the following years. However, some have suggested other explanations, such that it was named after Richard Amerike of Bristol.


In modern English, North and South America are generally considered separate continents, and taken together are called the Americas in the plural, parallel to similar situations such as the Carolinas. When conceived as a unitary continent, the form is generally the continent of America in the singular. However, without a clarifying context, singular America in English commonly refers to the United States of America.[1]

Earliest use of name[edit]

World map of Waldseemüller (Germany, 1507), which first used the name America (in the lower-left section, over South America)[2]

The earliest known use of the name America dates to April 25, 1507, where it was applied to what is now known as South America.[2] It appears on a small globe map with twelve time zones, together with the largest wall map made to date, both created by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in Saint-Dié-des-Vosges in France.[3] These were the first maps to show the Americas as a land mass separate from Asia. An accompanying book, Cosmographiae Introductio, anonymous but apparently written by Waldseemüller's collaborator Matthias Ringmann,[4] states, "I do not see what right any one would have to object to calling this part [that is, the South American mainland], after Americus who discovered it and who is a man of intelligence, Amerigen, that is, the Land of Americus, or America: since both Europa and Asia got their names from women".

Amerigo Vespucci[edit]

Americus Vespucius was the Latinized version of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci's name, and America is the feminine form of Americus. Amerigo itself is an Italian form of the medieval Latin Emericus (see also Saint Emeric of Hungary), which like the German form Heinrich (in English, Henry) derives from the Old High German name Haimirich.[5]

Amerigo Vespucci (March 9, 1454 – February 22, 1512) was an Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer who first demonstrated that Brazil and the West Indies did not represent Asia's eastern outskirts as initially conjectured from Columbus' voyages, but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to the Europeans.

Vespucci was apparently unaware of the use of his name to refer to the new landmass, as Waldseemüller's maps did not reach Spain until a few years after his death.[4] Ringmann may have been misled into crediting Vespucci by the widely published Soderini Letter, a sensationalized version of one of Vespucci's actual letters reporting on the mapping of the South American coast, which glamorized his discoveries and implied that he had recognized that South America was a continent separate from Asia; in fact, it is not known what Vespucci believed on this count, and he may have died believing, like Columbus, that he had reached the East Indies in Asia rather than a new continent.[6] Spain officially refused to accept the name America for two centuries, saying that Columbus should get credit, and Waldseemüller's later maps, after Ringmann's death, did not include it; however, usage was established when Gerardus Mercator applied the name to the entire New World in his 1538 world map. Acceptance may have been aided by the "natural poetic counterpart" that the name America made with Asia, Africa, and Europa.[4]

Richard Amerike[edit]

A Bristol antiquarian Alfred Hudd suggested in 1908 that the name was derived from the surname "Amerike" or "ap Meryk" and was used on early British maps that have since been lost. Richard ap Meryk, anglicised to Richard Amerike (or Ameryk) (c. 1445–1503) was a wealthy English merchant, royal customs officer and sheriff of Bristol.[7] He was the principal owner of the Matthew, the ship sailed by John Cabot during his voyage of exploration to North America in 1497.[7]

Hudd proposed his theory in a paper which was read at 21 May 1908 meeting of the Clifton Antiquarian Club, and which appeared in Volume 7 of the club's Proceedings. In "Richard Ameryk and the name America," Hudd discussed the 1497 discovery of North America by John Cabot, an Italian who had sailed on behalf of England. Upon his return to England after his first (1497) and second (1498–1499) voyages, Cabot received two pension payments from King Henry VII. Of the two customs officials at the Port of Bristol who were responsible for handing over the money to Cabot, the more senior was Richard Ameryk (High Sheriff of Bristol in 1503).[8] Hudd postulated that Cabot named the land that he had discovered after Ameryk, from whom he received the pension conferred by the king. He stated that Cabot had a reputation for being free with gifts to his friends, such that his expression of gratitude to the official would not be unexpected. Further, Hudd used a quote from a late 15th-century manuscript (a calendar of Bristol events), the original of which had been lost in an 1860 Bristol fire, that indicated the name America was already known in Bristol in 1497.[8][9]

This year (1497), on St. John the Baptist's day (June 24th), the land of America was found by the merchants of Bristow, in a ship of Bristowe called the 'Mathew,' the which said ship departed from the port of Bristowe the 2nd of May and came home again the 6th August following.[9]

Hudd reasoned that the scholars of the 1507 Cosmographiae Introductio, unfamiliar with Richard Ameryk, assumed that the name America, which he claimed had been in use for ten years, was based on Amerigo Vespucci and, therefore, mistakenly transferred the honour from Ameryk to Vespucci.[8][9] While Hudd's speculation has found support from more than one 21st century author, there is no hard proof to substantiate his theory that Cabot named America after Richard Ameryk.[8][10][11]


  1. ^ "America." The Oxford Companion to the English Language (ISBN 0-19-214183-X). McArthur, Tom, ed., 1992. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 33: "[16c: from the feminine of Americus, the Latinized first name of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512). The name America first appeared on a map in 1507 by the German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller, referring to the area now called Brazil]. Since the 16c, a name of the western hemisphere, often in the plural Americas and more or less synonymous with the New World. Since the 18c, a name of the United States of America. The second sense is now primary in English: ... However, the term is open to uncertainties: ..."
  2. ^ a b "Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii alioru[m]que lustrationes.". Retrieved September 8, 2014. [dead link]
  3. ^ Martin Waldseemüller. "Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii alioru[m]que lustrationes.". Washington, DC: Library of Congress. LCCN 2003626426. Retrieved April 18, 2014. 
  4. ^ a b c Toby Lester, December (2009). "Putting America on the Map". Smithsonian. 40: 9. 
  5. ^ "Amerigo – meaning of Amerigo name". Archived from the original on July 12, 2010. Retrieved July 27, 2010. 
  6. ^ "UK | Magazine | The map that changed the world". BBC News. October 28, 2009. Retrieved July 27, 2010. 
  7. ^ a b MacDonald, Peter (17 February 2011). "BBC History in Depth; The Naming of America; Richard Amerike". BBC History website. BBC. Retrieved 24 February 2011. 
  8. ^ a b c d "The Naming of America: Fragments We've Shored Against Ourselves". Jonathan Cohen, Stony Brook University. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 
  9. ^ a b c Alfred E. Hudd, F.S.A., Hon. Secretary. "Richard Ameryk and the name America" (PDF). Proceedings of the Clifton Antiquarian Club. VII: 8–24. Retrieved 11 July 2012. 
  10. ^ Peter MacDonald. "The Naming of America". BBC. Retrieved 10 July 2012. 
  11. ^ Quinn, David B. (1990). Explorers and Colonies: America, 1500-1625. A&C Black. p. 398. ISBN 9781852850241. Retrieved 12 February 2016.