5 Country Names That Are Stupid When You Know the Backstory
When you think about country names ... OK, let's be honest: You don't think about country names. You just assume that any given place got its name because [insert boring-ass reason you slept through in high school history class here]. But it turns out that maybe you should've chosen to sleep off the previous night's bender in math class instead, because some of the origins behind said names are downright ridiculous. Take, for example ...
Greenland: A Name Created to Trick People into Going There
Should you ever find yourself charged with naming a newly discovered land (because you're reading Cracked via time warp) and you don't want to be a dick and name it after yourself, our recommendation would be to keep it simple -- name it after whatever you happen to find there. Don't see anything but trees? Hey, we hear Treemerica is nice this time of year. Find yourself swamped by murder-bears? Murderbearland would serve as a nice warning to future explorers (a group to which you sadly no longer belong).
Although, as founder of Murderbearland, you can take comfort knowing your monument will be made of congealed badass.
Spin a globe and you'll see plenty of places named thusly ... but then you'll see Greenland, which, if you're anything like us, makes you wonder, "Why in the holy hell would anyone take a gigantic, dirt-filled iceberg and name it Greenland? What was that, some sort of sick joke?"
The Crazy Reason Behind the Name:
Well ... yeah, kind of. Greenland's name is credited to Erik Thorvaldsson, a Viking better known as Erik the Red, because the only possible way to make that name sound more badass is to associate it with the color of blood.
Is it just us, or is that not a sword he has sheathed there?
As the story goes, Erik got himself exiled for three years from his home in Iceland after a few minor altercations, which in Viking parlance means he murdered the shit out of a bunch of dudes after they asked him to return some stuff that he'd stolen. So Erik set sail looking to plunder the unknown north, but instead settled in a barren, frozen land where he spent what we have to assume were the most boring three years of his life.
"Boring" because snowmen don't bleed.
Then, having served out his exile like a good little Viking (and in what could possibly have been a dick move in payback for sending him away in the first place), Erik returned to Iceland in search of warm bodies to help defrost his newfound land. The problem is, how do you convince others that your icy rock is "totally a great place to live, you guys, like really?" Simple: You give it a nice, warm-sounding name. So, he came up with Greenland, "Because men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name."
And it totally worked, because around 500 people returned with him to establish two separate colonies. The fact that they didn't haul ass straight back across the sea at the first sight of a slavering polar bear tells us that Erik the Red's fangs must have been the scarier of the two.
Madagascar: Because Marco Polo Got Confused
In addition to being that pool game you played as a kid, Marco Polo was also the secondhand author of The Travels of Marco Polo, one of the Old World's most well-known travelogues. While serving hard time in a Genoan big house, Polo regaled his cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, with tales of all the majestic places he'd visited during his vast travels (including a bunch that he hadn't, but did gather from the accounts of others), which da Pisa dutifully wrote down.
Perhaps one of the most interesting tidbits describes "a most noble and beautiful Island, and one of the greatest in the world, for it is about 4,000 miles in compass." The inhabitants of this tremendous atoll ate nothing but camels, and the place was veritably crawling with "leopards, bears, and lions," as well as "more elephants than in any country in the world." Polo called this fantastic place "Madeigascar," and his description is so vivid, you'd almost believe he visited the island himself. (He didn't.)
"... and unicorns! Shit-tons of unicorns!"
The Crazy Reason Behind the Name:
You know what Madagascar has lots of? Animals that are found in no other place on the planet, most notably stripy-tailed ones that like to move it, move it. You know what they have not a single, solitary one of? Fucking elephants. For that matter, they have no leopards, no bears, and no lions, and if you asked a native what camel tastes like, he'd probably crotch-punch you for being some kind of pervert.
In short, much like the public pool in which you played his eponymous game a kid, Marco Polo was full of shit. He was, in fact, mistakenly assigning Madagascar the description (along with a bastardized version of the name) of Mogadishu, a town on the coast of Somalia nearly 1,500 miles to the north on the African mainland.
Here be camel-eaters.
A Portuguese explorer -- who, unlike Polo, actually set foot on the island -- tried to name it St. Lawrence two centuries later, but by that time it was too late. Polo's misnomer had stuck. Even the native Malagasy people, whose language doesn't combine the letters "sc" and ends all words in a vowel, had taken to calling the island "Madagasikara," whereas before they had simply referred to it as "This All" or "This Whole." Admittedly, though, when you're referring to your homeland as something that could easily be confused with "this hole," it's badly in need of a new name -- inaccurate or not.
The Solomon Islands: Thought to Be the Actual King Solomon's Mines
King Solomon was a biblical king of Israel known for his great wisdom, his fondness for wishboning babies, and the holy fuck-ton of gold he owned. You've probably heard the term "King Solomon's mines," because a 19th century novel popularized the idea that there were mysterious mines containing his vast cache of riches -- just sitting there, collecting dust -- and triggering a real-life treasure hunt that hasn't stopped yet. But, as is often the case, the fiction was influenced by fact, and the actual hunt for King Solomon's booty had been going on for centuries before the fictional account.
"To find Solomon's mines, we need to think like Solomon! Go find me a baby and a saw."
And when generations of treasure hunters searched around Israel and failed to find this hoard that would turn Smaug green with envy, well, they just kept looking farther and farther away. How far, you ask?
The Crazy Reason Behind the Name:
How about east of Australia, otherwise known as damn nigh 9,000 miles from Israel?
The idea came about when Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, a 16th century Spanish government official living in Peru, became fascinated by the Incas. He steeped himself in their rich legends and history, but he just couldn't quite believe that these natives could have built such a prosperous and civilized society, because racism. So he theorized that the Incas had actually come to the New World from Terra Australis Incognita, a mythical land then thought to exist in Earth's Southern Hemisphere (and that would eventually come to be known as Australia, after people discovered that it was less gold-rich myth and more venom-rich horror novel). Others had previously speculated that Ophir, the place mentioned in the Bible as the source of King Solomon's gold, lay somewhere in that same vicinity -- put two and two together, and boom! King Solomon's gold must have come from a land down under.
The script for a Crocodile Dundee prequel damn near writes itself.
His theory was so convincing that he managed to put together an expedition in search of some mythical riches and bitches. The explorers sailed west from Peru for over two months, being inappropriately diddled by uncooperative winds the entire time, until they finally made landfall, not on Australia, but on a string of islands to its northeast. They of course found precisely one fewer hoard of gold there than they'd hoped to, but word of their expedition had become so popular that everyone back home started calling those islands the Solomons, and the rest is history.
Venezuela: Named After Venice, for Completely Stupid Reasons
Today, Venice might be known mainly as that sinking city where tourists take obnoxious selfies with an irritated gondolier throwing up a bras d'honneur in the background, but for more than a millennium it was one of the richest, most powerful places in the world.
The Republic of Venice was hitting the early stages of its decline around the time Christopher Columbus was sailing the ocean blue, but world superpowers don't fade overnight, so it's safe to say that it remained quite the impressive place. Still, it was losing a little of its limelight to the discoveries being made in the New World -- you know, mythical lands, cities of silver and gold, naked chicks just everywhere. At one point, Columbus even said he'd found, right there at the tippy top of what is now South America, the biblical Terrestrial Paradise, aka the Garden of freaking Eden. According to Columbus, if he was wrong about it being Paradise, then it was someplace even better.
"This place is great! 'Badmouth the works of God' great."
The Crazy Reason Behind the Name:
Well, three other explorers arrived at the same spot not long after that and rated it a resounding "meh." When Alonso de Hojeda, Amerigo Vespucci, and Juan de la Cosa landed on some islands around the land described by Columbus, they found it sorely lacking in the "big-ass apple tree with a talking snake in it" department. What they did find, however, were lots of natives living in these:
Maybe Venice also had a problem with giant, terrifying swamp mosquitoes.
Once they were able to take a break from dodging arrows and generally trying to avoid ending up in a giant pot with diced carrots and onions (according to the explorers, the natives were cannibals), they turned to each other and said, "You know what? This place totally looks like Venice." So the mainland was named Veneziola -- literally "little Venice" -- and the name has survived ever since.
OK, so they may have been a bit homesick, seeing as how they decided to sail back to Europe right after that. Also, they were just arriving from Colombia with their pockets full of emeralds, so they were probably feeling pretty generous as they daydreamed of going home to greet their throngs of explorer groupies (which we assume were a thing back then). Even so, the absurd leap they had to make to see some ramshackle huts inhabited by (alleged) cannibals and make a connection to one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Europe makes us think there was some sort of scurvy-induced dementia going on.
America: Named After ... Well, It's Complicated
Ever since we were capable of memorizing a rhyme, we've known that Columbus discovered the Americas. But why are the Americas named the Americas, while all Columbus got was a country in South America known for its drug lords, civil conflict, and Shakira?
Well, the story you might have heard in school is that it's all because of one Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian pickle dealer/explorer who wrote some letters implying that he had reached the American mainland more than a year before Columbus. In 1507, said letters reached the desk of a German mapmaker by the name of Martin Waldseemuller, who first labeled these newfound lands as America, the feminine form of Vespucci's first name. That's a pretty straightforward story, right?
"Europeans ... equal ... dicks. Got it."
The Crazy Reason Behind the Name:
It would be, except for the fact that, depending on whom you ask, either those letters were forgeries or Vespucci was the Renaissance explorers' answer to Thomas Edison (i.e., a lying douchebag who leeched the credit from others to bolster his own fame and fortune). Apparently even Waldseemuller had second thoughts as to the authenticity of Vespucci's (or Vespucci's forger's) story, as he removed all references to America from his later maps. By that time, though, it was too late -- other mapmakers had already adopted the name.
"Sorry, Leif Erikson, but getting your name on a globe is a marketing game."
But wait, it gets more complicated! Others theorize that the word "America" was already in common use before Waldseemuller stuck it on his map -- he just assumed that Vespucci's first name was the source of the word, when in actuality it came from "Amerrique," an Indian tribe in Nicaragua that both Columbus and Vespucci had infected and enslaved -- er, visited. Some even think that Vespucci fudged his first name from Alberico to Amerigo just to make it sound more like the common name for the New World and ensure his lasting legacy.
But wait, there's one more! Still others theorize that the name didn't come from either "Amerigo" or "Amerrique," but from Richard Amerike, a 15th century businessman who didn't discover jack shit, but who threw piles of money at other people so they'd do it on his behalf. And if you think about it, that seems like a pretty fitting ancestral origin for modern America.
Even though the proponents' points could certainly raise an eyebrow, serious historians (you know, ones with impressive beards) don't give much credence to either the "Amerrique" or the "Amerike" theory, instead sticking with the tried-and-true forger-or-asshole origin. No matter which story you buy, one thing's for certain: Damn, there sure were a lot of people whose names smacked of freedom back in the olden days.
Related Reading: If you're more interested in the stupid stories behind your favorite songs, click here. Axl Rose recorded himself having sex for the song 'Rocket Queen'. And the true stories behind these viral images are more incredible than you'd ever believe. We've also got these hidden stories behind popular children's songs if you're into that.