I presume we all know about the first appearance of the word America on the Waldseemüller map of 1507; what I, at any rate, didn’t know was that the text of the map and accompanying book, and hence the coining of the word, is thought to be the work of Waldseemüller’s friend Matthias Ringmann. As a Fourth of July post, therefore, I offer “How America got its name: The suprising story of an obscure scholar, an adventurer’s letter, and a pun,” a lively Boston Globe piece by Toby Lester. A sample:

The author, for example, demonstrates a familiarity with ancient Greek, a language that Ringmann knew well and that Waldseemüller did not. He also incorporates snatches of classical verse, a literary tic of Ringmann’s. The one contemporary poet quoted in the text, too, is known to have been a friend of Ringmann.

Waldseemüller the cartographer, Ringmann the writer: This division of duties makes sense, given the two men’s areas of expertise. And, indeed, they would team up in precisely this way in 1511, when Waldseemüller printed a new map of Europe. In dedicating that map, Waldseemüller noted that it came accompanied by “an explanatory summary prepared by Ringmann.”

This question of authorship is important because whoever wrote “Introduction to Cosmography” almost certainly coined the name America. Here again, I would suggest, the balance tilts in the favor of Ringmann, who regularly entertained himself by making up words, punning in different languages, and investing his writing with hidden meanings. In one 1511 essay, he even mused specifically about the naming of continents after women.

I confess I felt a sting from this offhand remark: “After studying the classics at university he settled in the Strasbourg area, where he began to eke out a living by proofing texts for local printers and teaching school. It was a forgettable life, of a sort that countless others like him were leading.” Yeah, well where would your texts be if there were nobody to proof them, eh?


  1. John Emerson says

    Surely future generations will appreciate the heroism behind your mild-mannered copy-editor exterior.

  2. As you can see, Toby Lester (a writer for the The Atlantic Monthly) is selling his book, The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America, which is about to come out in paperback. He wrote a similar piece for Smithsonian when it first came out in hardcover. (Unfortunately, the book is not available for Amazon preview.)
    I’m pretty sure Ringmann was presented as a collaborator in John W. Hessler (a library at the Library of Congress)’s The Naming of America: Martin Waldseemuller’s 1507 World Map and the Cosmographiae Introductio, from a couple years ago. (It’s not available for preview, either, but here’s a review.)

  3. Yeah, it’s not a new idea, and Lester shouldn’t be presenting it as his own (which he seems to imply), but I have low expectations for newspaper pieces, and I enjoyed this one.

  4. By coincidence, I read today that Samuel Johnson coined the name Columbia.

  5. What was it to be the name of ? If a coin then not a penny-farthing, I assume: that would have been anachronistic.

  6. He was envisioning a space shuttle, I guess.

  7. You mean the other Samuel Johnson and as the new name for King’s College? Wasn’t that from the song by the Rev. Dr. Timothy Dwight?

  8. No, I was thinking of the normal Samuel Johnson and the word itself. In the Wikipedia article (very impressive, and supposedly one of the ones they’re most proud of) it says

    The name Columbia, a poetic name for the United States coined by Johnson, first appears in a 1738 weekly publication of the debates of the British Parliament in the Magazine.

    I’ve no evidence that it’s right, however.

  9. Amazing. It’s right there in the index of fictitious places in an 1806 edition, so I guess it shouldn’t be a revelation. And we know those debates were a “coinage of his own imagination.” Even beyond the made-up names needed to make the publication legal.

  10. From the same page MMcM just linked to:
    “I used formerly, (he added,) when sleepless in bed, to read like a Turk.

  11. dearieme says

    The Vespucci yarn always struck me as rather unlikely. I await developments.

  12. when sleepless in bed, to read like a Turk
    I suppose that means nodding off after all ?! I’m referring to that reverential bobbing of the head while reading as practiced by the devout, both Islamic and Jewish. At least I have believed it was reverential in intent. That is usually the explanation mentioned in TV documentaries showing young Jewish and Islamic scholars in libraries, in synagogues and mosques. As someone who reads an enormous amount, I am always dismayed and baffled by that bobbing, since I am sure it would drive me crazy when trying to concentrate on a text.
    But when searching the internet just now to find out what it might be called, I happened on a Catholic (!) site with a very different explanation, equally striking but no longer baffling:

    I also find it useful to move while praying. Traditional Jews routinely sway back and forth during prayer, apparently a reference to Psalm 35, which says “All my limbs shall declare, ‘O Lord, who is like You?'” Such movement is not required, and many people find it distracting, but I personally find that it helps me concentrate and focus.

    I trust someone here can tell us more about this.

  13. The Guyanan writer Jan Carew in an essay says the name America comes from a Nicaraguan indigenous tribe called the Amerriques. Carew promotes a notion proposed by a French geologist, Jules Marcou, that Alberigo Vespucci discovered this tribe on his exploration of the coast of Central America and that this tribe lived in a gold-rich area. When AV returned to Europe with gold samples from this Amerrique area–once in Europe, too, according to Carew/Marcou, the word gold and Amerrique becoming synonymous, which led to Alberigo changing his name to Amerrigo or Amerigo. I have also read that a Vespucci female descendant once petitioned the US government for her rights to land based on her being the only living descendant of the man for whom the nation was named. Vespucci published his letters in 1500 and they were widely read and reviewed, this several years before Waldseemuller’s map–
    ur fiend,

  14. The expression “swaying back and forth” for some reason suggests to me a sideways movement, but the reading movement I have observed is a swaying forwards and backwards. “Swaying back and forth” describes the rocking Hospitalismus that I vividly remember from TV documentaries on the horrific conditions in Rumanian “child homes”, shown in Germany in the early ’90s. Swaying seems to offer profound physiological reassurance, available in moods of devotion and despair, in young and old.

  15. There might even be a similar comfort in this to-ing and fro-ing of speculation about the origin of “America” – a kind of historical hospitalism.

  16. ToussianMuso says

    I thought the name America came from Amerigo Vespucci signing his first name on the maps he drew.

  17. I used to sign my name on maps, but nobody ever named anything for me.

  18. komfo,amonan says

    Sloppy article. He quotes the Introduction to Cosmography as reading, “Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, […]”, when the text clearly refers to Asia and Europe.

  19. j. del col says


  20. Languagehattan.

  21. Medicine Hat, known to locals as “The Hat”, according to Wikipedia. It’s a damn good name.

  22. Trond Engen says

    I think that’s his cousin the pharmacist.

  23. Trond Engen says

    If you think the regulars on this blog are a shady bunch you should take a look on his.

  24. marie-lucie says

    Yeah, Medicine Hat, not too far from Moose Jaw.
    It does not refer to a pharmacist, but to a medicine man, that is a shaman (who in the practice of his profession wore distinctive clothes).

  25. Only a few years ago Language Hat was on the first page of the “hat” Google, #6 I think, ahead of all hat companies. Now he’s fallen to #79 as businesses have wised up to the commercial potential of the net. It was nice while it lasted.

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