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The Straight Dope


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We all know that America was named for Amerigo Vespucci. What does Amerigo mean in Italian? --Dave Curwin, Newton, Massachusetts

What do you mean, what does it mean in Italian? What does Dave mean in English? Amerigo in Vespucci's day was an established if not especially common name whose original meaning, it's safe to say, had long been forgotten. AV apparently got it for no more profound reason than that it was his grandfather's name.

There are a couple of theories on the name's origin. One is that it's a variant of Enrico, the Italian form of Henry, and derives from the Old German Haimirich (in later German Emmerich, in English Americus), from haimi (home) plus ric (power, ruler). Alternatively, it may come from the Old German Amalricus, from amal (work) plus ric. (Amalricus the foreman? Beats me.) Amerigo shows up in Italian writing from around the 12th century and may have been introduced by the Ostrogoths six centuries earlier (this from Dictionary of First Names, Hanks and Hodges, 1990).

A more interesting question is why the cartographer Martin Waldseemueller in 1507 named the New World (actually just South America) America rather than Vespucciland--although I guess to ask the question is to answer it. Amerigo's first name was a lot more euphonious than his last name, and (no small matter) could be latinized into a word that started and ended with the letter A, just like Asia and Africa before it. Also, unlike Christopher Columbus, invariably referred to by his last name, Vespucci was one of those people known in his own lifetime mostly by his first.

The most interesting question of all is why America was named after a guy who was otherwise so obscure. For centuries it was argued that Amerigo Vespucci was a fraud who'd never traveled to the continent that bore his name and didn't deserve to have either of his names applied to anything. But it's now fairly well established that he made at least two voyages to the Americas, not as leader of an expedition but possibly as navigator, the first in 1499. He was not the first European of his era to set foot on the mainland, as was once thought, but probably was the first to realize that the land he helped explore was a separate continent and not merely the coast of Asia, as Columbus and others believed.

Vespucci came to the world's attention chiefly through the publication in 1503 and 1504 of two brief letters he purportedly wrote to Piero di Lorenzo de' Medici about a voyage undertaken for the king of Portugal that Vespucci served on. Obviously the work of an educated man (the Vespuccis were a prosperous family in Florence), the letters managed to be both scholarly and entertaining, combining a sober discussion of navigational issues with the news that the natives of the New World would have sex with anybody, including mom. Vespucci, or perhaps his anonymous publisher, also had the wit to entitle the first letter Novus Mundus, the New World, an audacious and, as it turned out, accurate claim. The letters were by far the most interesting account of explorations in the Americas that had appeared until then and caused a sensation that if anything exceeded that created by Columbus's description of his first voyage ten years earlier. The letters were reprinted in every European language and soon came to the attention of Waldseemueller and his friends, who were members of a think tank of sorts in the town of Saint-Die, Lorraine, now part of France. The Waldseemueller group published Cosmographiae Introductio ("Introduction to Cosmography"), the first attempt to update the geography texts of the ancients. They were quite taken with Vespucci's idea that America was a new land, since it meant they'd gone beyond the knowledge of the ancients, in whose shadow they'd long toiled. They thought it only appropriate that AV's name grace the new land, of whose extent they had at that point only the vaguest inkling. The naming of America after Amerigo Vespucci was thus a bit capricious but not entirely undeserved.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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