August 13, 2007

why america is not columbia

From a book review in the New York Times:
It’s one of the stranger quirks of history and geography. The continent that was supposedly discovered by Christopher Columbus is named for a decidedly second-rate Johnny-come-lately of an explorer named Amerigo Vespucci. [...] As it turns out, America — this nation of notorious hucksters, dreamers and spin doctors — was named for just the right guy. [...]

In claiming that South America was a continent, Vespucci was only confirming what his mentor and role model Columbus had already established. Vespucci, it turns out, was also not the first to use the phrase “New World” — that distinction goes to Peter Martyr, who had coined the term three years earlier. [...] Even more important than his actual accomplishments were the accounts of his voyages. In his writings he was driven, like many explorers before and since, by a desire to establish a lasting name for himself.

It was in 1507, with the publication of a large cut-out map suitable for creating a do-it-yourself globe, that Vespucci’s first name, if not Vespucci himself, achieved lasting renown. On this map, published in the intellectual backwater of St. Dié in Lorraine, the designation “America” (the feminine of Amerigo) was chosen for the portion of the hemisphere where Vespucci claimed to have landed during his second voyage. In 1538, the noted mapmaker Mercator, apparently referring to the earlier map from St. Dié, chose to use the name America to mark not just the southern but also the northern portion of the continent. The rest, as they say, is history.

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