The Stories Behind 16 Country Names Most People Don't Know

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Behind the name of every country is a story. Some nations take their monikers from geographical features or famous individuals, while others invoke a glorious past or the hopes of a bright future. 

This collection looks at some of the intriguing stories behind the names. 

  • Language: Bambara 

    Meaning: Hippopotamus 

    Story: Named after the famed Mali Empire, the word mali means hippopotamus in Bambara, a language of western Africa. You might think Mali's national animal would be an obvious choice, but you'd be wrong - it's a vulture

    • Located In: Africa
    • Area (km sq.): 1240000.0
  • Panama - Before The Canal There Was A Lot Of Fish
    Photo: H.C. White Co. / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Language: Cueva

    Meaning: Land of abundant fish

    Story: Humans have lived in the land joining Central and South America for more than 10,000 years, but were too remote to come under the influence of the Aztec or Andean civilizations. The name comes from an indigenous word to describe the area’s main source of sustenance. 

    • Located In: Americas
    • Area (km sq.): 75416.0
  • Language: Latin

    Meaning: Southern land 

    Story: The idea of a Terra Australis Incognita (“unknown southern land”) stretches back to Roman times and was popularized by the British in the early 19th century. Previously known as New Holland, the name Australia was officially adopted in 1824.

    • Located In: Oceania
    • Area (km sq.): 7692024.0
  • Burkina Faso - Honest Men
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Fair use

    Language: Mossi and Dyula

    Meaning: Land of honest men

    Story: Revolutionary Thomas Sankara chose the name in 1984 to replace the old colonial name of Upper Volta

    • Located In: Africa
    • Area (km sq.): 274200.0
  • Language: Italian or possibly indigenous 

    Meaning: Little Venice, or after the native population

    Story: Two competing stories exist for where Venezuela takes its name. The first is that Italian and Spanish explorers Amerigo Vespucci (yes, the one America is named after) and Alonso de Ojeda, respectively, noted that the natives' settlements were built on stilts over Lake Maracaibo (pictured from space). The city built on the water reminded the explorers of Venice.

    Another member of the expedition claimed a simpler explanation - the people already there called themselves Veneciuela

    • Located In: Americas
    • Area (km sq.): 916445.0
  • Liberia - Freedom 
    Photo: Government of Liberia / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Language: Latin

    Meaning: Land of the free

    Story: The country was established on the western coast of Africa as a homeland for freed slaves in the 19th century. Its flag’s resemblance to the US flag is not a coincidence.

    • Located In: Africa
    • Area (km sq.): 111370.0