Schoolchildren are taught that the Americas are named after Amerigo Vespucci, an explorer who came along after Columbus and was the first to understand that he was looking at a “New World” and not Asia. While it seems pretty unlikely he was the only one who figured it out—just like Columbus was not the only one who understood the world is round—it might be as fair to call him first as it is fair to call Columbus first because Columbus heralded the Spanish conquest.
There’s another “what if” in the historical record that’s a lot more interesting than what if Vespucci were not the first to get his head around this hemisphere not being Asia. What if he were named for America rather than the converse?
Jonathan Cohen of SUNY-Stony Brook published an essay in 1988 that collected the evidence. The evidence that Vespucci changed his given name to “Amerigo” after his voyages is thin, and the times his name appears differently appear to me to be within the loose usages of the times before computers would upchuck over one misplaced letter. The other part of the argument is not so easily dismissed.
Vespucci, like Columbus, was more interested in gold than abstract learning. Both Columbus and Vespucci were thought to have visited the part of modern Nicaragua we call the Miskito Coast, home of a Carib tribe of the same name. Oral tradition of the Natives named the mountain range behind the Miskito Coast “Amerrique.” Cohen cites the reasoning of a Peruvian scholar who argued that “America” is more easily, given the naming customs of the time, derived from Amerrique than from Amerigo.
Amerigo Vespucci’s first encounter with the Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, 1497 De Bry’s illustration, c.1592)
Another part of the argument is that the coastal Indians gave the greedy explorers some gold and said it came from the Amerrique Mountains, which caused them to focus toward those mountains because gold is, as Black Elk famously called it, “the yellow metal that makes wasichus crazy.” Whether or not it was a product of gold fever, the first publication of “America” was a 1507 map by Martin Waldseemüller. We are fortunate our lands did not get named after him.
So it is possible that the Americas came from South American Indians rather than from Amerigo Vespucci, although they had only attached it to some mountains rather than the whole continent, let alone two continents.
On the northern of the two continents, there are three countries, all of which owe substantial debts to indigenous languages for their political subdivisions and, in Canada and Mexico, the names of the nations themselves.
The United States of America contains 50 states, and 27 state names are based in American Indian languages: Alabama (Choctaw), Alaska (Aleut), Arizona (O’odham), Arkansas (Illinois), Connecticut (Algonquian), Hawaii (from the indigenous language of Hawai’i), Idaho (Apache), Illinois (Algonquian language group, probably Miami), Iowa (Dakota), Kansas (Kansas), Kentucky (Seneca), Massachusetts (Narragansett), Michigan (Ottawa), Minnesota (Dakota), Mississippi (Ojibwe), Missouri (Missouri), Nebraska (Chiwere), New Mexico (Nahuatl), North and South Dakota (Dakota), Ohio (Seneca), Oklahoma (Choctaw), Tennessee (Cherokee), Texas (Caddo), Utah (Apache), Wisconsin (Miami), and Wyoming (Lenape).
“Canada” comes from the writings of French explorer Jacques Cartier’s 1536 mapping of the St. Lawrence, where he recorded Indians from what are now the Six Nations referring to their settlements as kanatas. The modern nation of Canada consists of ten provinces and three territories. Four of the provinces and two of the territories are names with indigenous origins. The rest are about Britain or British royals plus the Northwest Territories.
In 1536 Jacques Cartier mapped the St. Lawrence.
Nova Scotia means “New Scotland,” but today’s Nova Scotia Province was originally called Acadia, possibly from a Micmac word meaning simply “lands.”
Quebec is derived from the word for “strait” common to Algonquin, Cree, and Micmac.
Ontario comes from an Iroquoian word meaning “beautiful water.”
Manitoba is either from the Assiniboine Mini and tobow meaning “Lake of the Prairie” or the Cree maniotwapow, “the strait of the spirit.”
Saskatchewan comes from the Cree Kisiskatchewani Sipi, “swift-flowing river.”
Nunavut Territory is named directly from the Inuktitut language, “our land.”
Yukon Territory was named from the Lucheux Yu-kun-ah, “great river.”
Mexico has 31 states and is the name of one of the states (not to be confused with Distrito Federal, a central government zone like the U.S. District of Columbia). The name of the country and state of Mexico comes from the Nahuatl language.
Chihuahua, Coahuila, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Zacatecas, Chiapas, Michoacán, Colima, and Tlaxcala come from the Nahuatl language.
Linguists dispute whether Tabasco originated in Nahuatl or Mayan, but agree it’s indigenous rather than Spanish.
Campeche comes from the Mayan language. Yucatán comes from a Spanish misunderstanding of the Mayan language. Asked the name of the area, a Mayan answered, “Ma'anaatik ka t'ann” (“I do not understand you.”).
Sonora is a Spanish-Yaqui hybrid. Explorer Diego de Guzmán attempted to name the land after the day he crossed the Yaqui River, the day of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, but none of the indigenous languages of the area have the ñ sound. The Indians tried to make him happy by calling the place “Señora” but the missing sound results in Sonora.
Tamaulipas comes from the Huastec language.
Sinaloa comes from the Cahita language.
Guanajuato and Querétaro come from the Purépecha language.
Nayarit is named in honor of an indigenous person, Nayar, a leader of the Cora people’s resistance to the Spanish.
In all, 19 of the 31 Mexican state names come from indigenous languages. Nahuatl is ubiquitous because it is informally known as Aztec, the language of the empire of the same name. The Aztec Empire might have been destroyed by the Spanish as a political entity, but there were too many Aztecs to destroy as a people.
Like there were too many American Indians to destroy as peoples.