How America got its name 0

Toby Lester at Boston.com tells how America got its name. The story needs to be read in full.

Here are the essentials of it:

If you’re like most people, you’ll dimly recall from your school days that the name America has something to do with Amerigo Vespucci, a merchant and explorer from Florence. You may also recall feeling that this is more than a little odd — that if any European earned the “right” to have his name attached to the New World, surely it should have been Christopher Columbus, who crossed the Atlantic years before Vespucci did.

But Vespucci, it turns out, had no direct role in the naming of America. He probably died without ever having seen or heard the name. A closer look at how the name was coined and first put on a map, in 1507, suggests that, in fact, the person responsible was a figure almost nobody’s heard of: a young Alsatian proofreader named Matthias Ringmann.

How did a minor scholar working in the landlocked mountains of eastern France manage to beat all explorers to the punch and give the New World its name? The answer is more than just an obscure bit of history, because Ringmann deliberately invested the name America with ideas that still make up important parts of our national psyche: powerful notions of westward expansion, self-reinvention, and even manifest destiny.

And he did it, in part, as a high-minded joke.

Matthias Ringmann was born in an Alsatian village in 1482. After studying the classics at university he settled in the Strasbourg area, where he began to eke out a living by proofing texts for local printers and teaching school. … In early 1505, Ringmann came across a recently published pamphlet titled “Mundus Novus,” and that changed everything.

The pamphlet contained a letter purportedly sent by Amerigo Vespucci a few years earlier to his patron in Florence. Vespucci wrote that he had just completed a voyage of western discovery and had big news to report. On the other side of the Atlantic, he announced, he had found “a new world.”

In his letter, he reported sailing west across the Atlantic, like Columbus. After making landfall, however, he had turned south, in an attempt to sail under China and into the Indian Ocean — and had ended up following a coastline that took him thousands of miles almost due south, well below the equator, into a region of the globe where most European geographers assumed there could only be ocean. …

Ringmann … teamed up with a local German mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller, and the two men printed 1,000 copies of a giant world map designed to broadcast the news: the famous Waldseemüller map of 1507. One copy of the map still survives, and it’s recognized as one of the most important geographical documents of all time. That’s because it’s the first to depict the New World as surrounded by water; the first to suggest the existence of the Pacific Ocean; the first to portray the world’s continents and oceans roughly as we know them today; and, of course, the first to use a strange new name: America, which Ringmann and Waldseemüller printed in block letters across what today we would call Brazil.

Why America? Ringmann and Waldseemüller explained their choice in a small companion volume to the map, called “Introduction to Cosmography.” “These parts,” they wrote, referring to Europe, Asia, and Africa, “have in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci….Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this from being called Amerigen — the land of Amerigo, as it were — or America, after its discoverer, Americus.”

Libraries today attribute this little book to Waldseemüller. But the work itself actually identifies no author — and Ringmann’s fingerprints, I would argue, appear all over it. The author, for example, demonstrates a familiarity with ancient Greek, a language that Ringmann knew well and that Waldseemüller did not. He also incorporates snatches of classical verse, a literary tic of Ringmann’s. The one contemporary poet quoted in the text, too, is known to have been a friend of Ringmann.

Waldseemüller the cartographer, Ringmann the writer: This division of duties makes sense, given the two men’s areas of expertise. And, indeed, they would team up in precisely this way in 1511, when Waldseemüller printed a new map of Europe. In dedicating that map, Waldseemüller noted that it came accompanied by “an explanatory summary prepared by Ringmann.”

This question of authorship is important because whoever wrote “Introduction to Cosmography” almost certainly coined the name America. Here again, I would suggest, the balance tilts in the favor of Ringmann, who regularly entertained himself by making up words, punning in different languages, and investing his writing with hidden meanings. In one 1511 essay, he even mused specifically about the naming of continents after women.

The naming-of-America passage in “Introduction to Cosmography” is rich in precisely the sort of word play Ringmann loved. The key to the passage is the curious name Amerigen, which combines the name Amerigo with the Greek word gen, or “earth,” to create the meaning “land of Amerigo.” But the name yields other meanings. Gen can also mean “born,” and the word ameros can mean “new,” suggesting, as many Renaissance observers had begun to hope, that the land of Amerigo was a place where European civilization could go to be reborn — an idea, of course, that still resonates today. The name may also contain a play on meros, a Greek word sometimes translated as “place,” in which case Amerigen would become A-meri-gen, or “No-place-land”: not a bad way to describe a previously unnamed continent whose full extent was still uncertain.

By the middle of the 16th century [the name] had caught on, and mapmakers were using it to define not only South but North America. But Ringmann himself didn’t live to see the day. By 1511 he was complaining of weakness and shortness of breath, and before the year’s end he was dead, probably of tuberculosis. He hadn’t yet reached 30.

Both Ringmann and Waldseemüller soon slipped into obscurity. The two would remain forgotten for centuries, but Waldseemüller’s star rose again in the 20th century, thanks to the accidental rediscovery, in 1901, of the sole surviving copy of his great map. A century later, calling it America’s birth certificate, the Library of Congress bought the map for … $10 million.

The author rightly calls it “one of the most important documents ever created”.