An often-known but rather insignificant fact to many in the Anglophone world is that when talking about the continents collectively known as “the Americas,” some parts of the world consider them to be just one continent: America. This is true for most of Europe, South America, and some parts of Asia. Thus, when talking about the continent, people in Latin America, for example, call it “America” and not the plural form of “the Americas.” Regardless, it is often unknown why the New World owes its name to one man: an Italian merchant called Amerigo Vespucci. But why this name? Why a European explorer, and out of all, why Amerigo?
Meeting the New World: Exploration & Cartography
Leaving aside the discussion regarding the Discovery of America, one thing is true: the 15th and 16th centuries saw a historic exploration of the New World by Europeans. Many, like Christopher Columbus, were unconvinced about the places they had reached or the true nature of a different, unfamiliar continent. But with time, the European explorers who traveled to the New World came to know the vast world that had been unknown by either side for centuries. Some of these explorers went on to become famous, iconic characters in history whose legacies were guaranteed to outlive their lives and go as far as giving names to land and peoples.
Colombia and Colombians are familiar names to most, stemming from Christopher Columbus. However, one must ask why we say the “United States of America” and “Americans,” even though they aren’t the only ones who can claim the title of “Americans.” But, in any case, where does the name come from? Why “Americans” and not “Columbians” or even “Eriksonians”?
It all goes back to exploration and cartography. Exploration into the New World became a staple policy for most of the European powers of the time, each hoping for a share of the spoils.
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Likewise, whatever was discovered and eventually claimed by the European explorers in the New World was first portrayed through cartography. This new and major frontier provided an incredible opportunity for cartographers to envision and represent the accounts provided by the explorers. In this unique exercise, some cartographers went on to honor the explorers by giving their names to the newly-met lands. One such case is none other than America.
Universalis Cosmographia: The First Appearance of the Name “America”
The first cartographic projection to ever refer to the New World as America was the Universalis cosmographia map by German cartographer Martin Waldsemüller. The projection’s full name, The Universal Cosmography according to the Tradition of Ptolemy and the Discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci and others, refers to the previous work carried out by Alexandrian cartographer Claudius Ptolemy, as well as the explorers’ discoveries.
Although the name “America” appears on the map, it is believed to refer specifically to the Southern part of the continent, which is now considered South America. Meanwhile, the northern part of the continent appears depicted under the name of Parias, so-called after Amerigo Vespucci’s accounts of the region. Likewise, America bears the name of Amerigo, named after him by Waldsemüller. America was considered a distinct continent, while Parias was considered an island and a “large, special part of the fourth part of the world.” Thus, America became a clear and defined title for a continent, and Parias became a term for an ambiguous and uncertain region of the known world.
The map itself is not a precise representation of the world from our contemporary perspective, but at the time, it was a major proponent of what the New World resembled. That is because, unlike other cartographers, Waldsemüller’s tradition appealed to a theory where the known geography was lacking. Other mapmakers would simply omit unexplored coastlines and territories.
The map proved consequential, being bought by German cartographer Johannes Schönner, who continued with Waldsemüller’s approximations. The new representations of the New World followed suit, and in time, the new continent became fully explored and drawn, bearing for centuries to come the name of one explorer.
Amerigo Vespucci: Merchant, Explorer, & Navigator
The New World may bear the name of Amerigo Vespucci thanks to Waldsemüller’s work, but who was he, and what did he accomplish? Amerigo Vespucci was born into a privileged Florentine family. He was educated by his uncle, a renowned Dominican priest who was friends with influential people like Lorenzo de Medici and the geographer Toscanelli. Following his father’s wishes, Amerigo became involved in commercial activities and eventually became a true merchant.
His ties with the Medici family landed him an opportunity in Sevilla, which was then a major economic center in Europe. In Sevilla, Amerigo became the right-hand man of fellow Italian merchant Giannotto Berardi. Their commercial activities neared them to Cristopher Columbus, who was about to embark on his journey to the Indies, which resulted in his arrival to the New World.
After his third trip, Columbus was arrested by the Spanish crown, and his monopoly on the expeditions to the New World was put to an end. Amerigo traveled on the first expedition after Columbus’ monopoly was ended. Although he was an influential man and successful merchant, Amerigo was never truly an impressive navigator. He never led any major expedition but provided many detailed accounts of what he saw and experienced.
Amerigo briefly changed sides to the Portuguese crown but ultimately returned and stayed with the Spanish. Amerigo never officially claimed that what he saw on his expeditions was a distinct, previously unknown continent. Nevertheless, the discussion on whether Columbus or Vespucci was the first to claim the discovery of a new continent continues. Columbus and Amerigo were friends, however, so it is unlikely that either would claim on behalf of the other’s accounts.
The Consolidation of the Name
Waldsemüller, rather unknowingly, baptized the New World with a name that would remain for what is likely the rest of history. Although the reasons for the naming are not fully clear, the reactions are. Some, like renowned friar Bartolome de las Casas, refused and condemned the naming of the New World in honor of Amerigo Vespucci. Instead, he believed the new continent ought to be called “Columba” in honor of Columbus, as he thought Columbus’ legacy was being stolen or mistreated. Yet America as the name for the new land still endured.
It is broadly believed that the combined effects of the replication and continuation of Waldsemüller’s representation of the New World in new cartography, alongside the simplicity and familiarity of the word “America” for the Europeans who were already used to similar names (Africa, Asia, Europa), were quite consequential in the permanence of the term.
Maps produced by later German cartographers such as Johann Schöner, Petrus Apianus, and Sebastian Münster were key in the consolidation of the idea of a New World. Likewise, they aided in the propagation of the term “America.” Other terms were still preferred at the time; in the Iberian Peninsula, for example, the term “las Indias Occidentales” (the West Indies) was more commonly used.
Waldsemüller made a new map in 1513, where he turned back on the name “America” and instead used the term “Terra incognita.” He also corrected himself by saying it was Columbus who “discovered” this new land, not Amerigo. Regardless, “America” endured.
The Americas: A Story of Politics & Geography
Nowadays, the Anglophone world refers to “America” as two separate continents. But this was not always the case, particularly not in the United States. For most of its history, America was also one continent.
However, the United States has had trouble with its name. It is long and difficult to invoke quickly, plus it lacks a specific and distinct noun that only refers to its territory or culture. The United Mexican States, for example, could be called “Mexico” since it is a distinct noun referencing one nation. America, however, includes many places. In its early years, the United States didn’t call itself America but rather “the Union,” “the Republic,” or “the United States” (the latter term is also still in use today). This began to change, however.
By the 20th century, the United States was comfortable calling itself America and recognizing two continents instead of one. The reason why this happened is buried behind years of expansionism, imperialism, and geopolitical goals. A once isolated and careful republic had entered the world stage as a colonial power that rivaled the empires of old. According to American historian, Daniel Immerwahr,
“Imperialism brought America to the fore, resolving the country’s nomenclatural woes. Presumptuous, heedlessly expansive, it was a name to match the national character at the dawn of the century. Where earlier generations might have stopped short of fully embracing America in deference to the other American countries, the new imperium didn’t care.”
Thus, the terms used before to refer to America were no longer useful or appropriate. America as a term was big and encompassing, just like the United States’ intentions for power and empire. The reservation for using the term before, in consideration to other American nations, no longer existed after the United States consolidated itself as a major superpower on the world stage.
Regarding when and why the United States changed from one American continent to two, historians Karen Wigen and Martin Lewis argue:
“While it might seem surprising to find North and South America still joined into a single continent in a book published in the United States in 1937, such a notion remained fairly common until World War II. It cannot be coincidental that this idea served American geopolitical designs at the time, which sought both Western Hemispheric domination and disengagement from the “Old World” continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa.”
After the Second World War, the terms “America” and “American” became increasingly associated with the nation and the people that had helped defeat the Axis powers. This momentum was soon tapped by American geography: “By the 1950s, however, virtually all American geographers had come to insist that the visually distinct landmasses of North and South America deserved separate designations.”
The names once used were no longer sought for by the United States. “America” as a term was big and encompassing, just like the United States’ ambitions. Starting with Theodore Roosevelt, American presidents began using the term “America” freely. Today, the terms once used for the United States are broadly forgotten and America remains as the sole, most recognizable name.