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September 30, 2001 - How America Got Its Name, Part 2 - 2002-01-30

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster -- how a piece of land between Europe and Asia got the name "America."

RS: The name honors the Italian-born explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci. "America" first appeared on a world map in fifteen-oh-seven, over what we now call South America.

AA: Only one copy of America's so-called birth certificate is known to survive. It's now in the hands of the Library of Congress here in Washington.

RS: But the library has to raise ten-million dollars to buy it from a German prince. The big map was housed for more than three-hundred-fifty years in his family's castle.

AA: Now here's the story of the map: Amerigo Vespucci first set out for this part of the world in fourteen-ninety-nine.

RS: But, let's not forget Christopher Columbus. He set out for the New World seven years earlier, in fourteen-ninety-two.

AA: Right, but when Columbus touched land he thought he was in Asia. It was Vespucci who writes of finding a "Mondus Novus," Latin for "New World." Professor David Woodward at the University of Wisconsin is editor of "The History of Cartography." He says Vespucci's published account of what he had found inspired the German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller to put "America" on the map, and to explain his reasoning in a book called "Introduction to Cosmography."


"In that book he says, 'I don't see why anybody should rightly forbid naming this fourth part of the world Amerige, land of Americus, as it were, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of acute genius. Or America, in as much as Europe and Asia have received their names from women."

RS: OK, you recognize the name "America" -- but what about "Americus" and "Amerige"? Americus is simply Latin for Amerigo.

AA: But Professor Woodward believes "Amerige" was actually a play on words by Waldseemuller and another young scholar. They changed the g-o in Amerigo to g-e, the same Greek root as in "geography," by implication "land," to come up with "land of Americus."


WOODWARD: "I'm not sure that they really expected people to seriously agree with them that this new world should be named after Amerigo Vespucci."

RS: "So did they not know that Columbus had been there first?"

WOODWARD: "They had knowledge of the Columbian voyages to the islands of the Caribbean, but not up to the mainland and Columbus himself you got the remember didn't know that he'd really reached the mainland either."

RS: "Is there anything in the literature about Amerigo Vespuci, about his reaction -- or did he ever see this?"

AA: "Did he get royalties from that?"

WOODWARD: "There's no reaction in the literature at all that I've seen."

RS: "So what you're saying here, it's really the power of the press, it's printed in a booklet and finds its name on a map."

WOODWARD: "There were three times as many editions of Amerigo Vespuci's little publication published as there were of the record of Columbus' voyages. It was far more popular as a piece of literature."

RS: "So more copies in print, puts the name on the map."

WOODWARD: "And more editions in languages other than Latin."

AA: That was Professor David Woodward at the University of Wisconsin.

RS: Columbus never saw Waldseemuller's map and its tribute to Vespucci -- Columbus died in fifteen-oh-six, a year before it came out. Now interestingly, the mapmaker removed the name "America" a few years later.

RS: But by then, others had started using it, so the name stuck. Before we go, a little quiz -- do you say the "United States is" or the "United States are"?

AA: We were surprised to learn that the answer used to be "are." That changed after the eighteen-sixties. After the Civil War, "United States" became "is."

AA: University of Maryland history professor Gary Gerstle says it that before the Civil War, you were first a citizen of your state, then of the country. But after the pro-Union north defeated the Confederate states of the South, citizenship became something granted directly by the federal government.


"It's not just the drive for unity, though, it's not just 'let's pull together,' but it's also the very particular assertion made by the unionists, the republicans, that the Union was supreme and no state of the United Sates had a right to secede from the Union."

RS: That's all for this week. Write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington DC 20237 USA or With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "America"/West Side Story [movie soundtrack, recorded in Hollywood in August of 1960]