The History Behind The Names Of 11 Natural Wonders

List Rules
Vote up the most apropos names.

The names of some of the natural world's most breathtaking sights can depend on whom you ask. Many will think of Everest when asked to name the world's highest mountain, but the man whose name sits atop the peak was far from happy about that fact.

Most of the world's natural wonders possess multiple monikers, local and colonial, that have an uneasy coexistence into the present day. Some refer to monarchs or local officials; others invoke key features or refer to a nearly forgotten legend. This collection looks at the stories behind the names of some of nature's most marvelous wonders


  • Location: Zambia-Zimbabwe border

    Origins: The spectacular waterfall is known locally as Mosi-oa-Tunya ("the smoke that thunders") and internationally as Victoria Falls. The latter name, by Scottish explorer and missionary David Livingstone, honors Queen Victoria.

    While some leaders have called for the colonial name to be scrapped, some citizens feel a change would have a negative impact on tourism. 

    UNESCO uses both names on its official listing. 

  • Parícutin
    Photo: K. Segerstrom, US Geological Survey / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
    2
    26 VOTES

    Location: Mexico

    Origins: The volcano draws its name from a nearby village buried in lava after the nine-year eruption that began in 1943. The volcano seemed to spring up overnight from a cornfield following a period of seismic activity and destroyed the village of Parícutin. Only the church left behind any trace of human habitation in the roughly 90 square miles covered by volcanic ash. 

    In 1952, the eruption ceased almost as suddenly as it began, and the volcano has lain dormant ever since. 

  • Location: Ecuador 

    Origins: The Galapagos is a group of seven islands off the coast of Ecuador. They were officially discovered by Tomas de Berlanga in 1535. Although they were possibly found earlier (the Incas were as likely as anyone), no evidence has yet turned up to support this claim.

    Berlanga, the Bishop of Panama, stumbled upon the islands by accident and wasn’t overly enamored with his discovery. He noted the local wildlife and presence of birds “so silly that they do not know how to flee... many were caught in hand.”

    The islands were also referred to at the time as Las Islas Encantadas (“the enchanted islands”) because they were surprisingly difficult to navigate. The name Galapagos was the one that ultimately stuck. The giant tortoises native to the island were the inspiration, as their distinctive shells reminded the Spaniards of horse saddles. In Old Spanish, galapago meant “saddle,” but now means “tortoise.”

  • 4
    17 VOTES

    Jeju Island

    Location: South Korea

    Origins: Jeju ("province across the sea") is a self-governing province in South Korea that has gone by several names over the course of its storied history. Relations with the Korean mainland have not always been harmonious.

    The island itself is notable for its incredible natural beauty and is listed among the Seven Wonders of Nature. Its center is dominated by Mt. Halla and is home to a UNESCO world heritage site, the Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes.

    Its nickname Sammu-samda-do (“Island of Three Lacks and Three Abundances”) gives an interesting insight into its reputation. The three lacks are beggars, gates, and thieves, while the three abundances are wind, women, and stone. Its fourth abundance is in the proliferation of Dol-hareubangs (“stone grandfathers”) - statues that offer protection and fertility. Jeju island is a popular honeymoon and tourist destination.

  • 5
    37 VOTES

    Location: Russia

    Origins:  Known colloquially to Russians today as the “Pearl of Siberia,” Lake Baikal’s existence was largely unknown to Europeans until the Russians expanded into the area in the 1600s. Ancient Siberians referred to it as Lamu (“sea”), while some Chinese accounts from the second century CE call it Beihai (“northern sea”).

    The origins of the lake’s modern name are difficult to pin down; some suggest it was adapted from the Mongolian name for the lake, Baigal, which means possibly either “the standing of fire” or “rich fire.” Another possibility is a combination of the Yakut (a Turkic language) words bai (“rich”) and kuyol (“lake”), although this explanation isn't widely accepted. Finally, there’s the Russians themselves, who saw it as a “sacred sea.” 

    Whatever the real story, the lake itself is one of the world’s greatest natural wonders. A UNESCO heritage site, it's the world's deepest lake and holds about a fifth of the world’s entire freshwater supply. All five of the American Great Lakes combined hold less water than Baikal. The exact amount of plants and wildlife the lake supports isn’t yet known, but they number at least 2,500 species.

  • 6
    20 VOTES

    Komodo Island

    Location: Indonesia 

    Origins: The Indonesian island is best known for its famously huge reptile inhabitants: Komodo dragons. Although just a few thousand of these real-life dragons exist, their fame greatly surpasses their modest population.

    The island’s name was a product of the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. In 1910, a Dutch colonial official, Lieutenant Jacques van Steyn van Hensbroek, heard of giant “land crocodiles” on the island. His interest suitably piqued, he led an expedition to see for himself. He returned with the remains of a giant reptile, bringing considerable Western interest to the ancient species. But it wasn’t until the late 1960s that a serious long-term study of Komodo dragons took place.

    The island is now home to Komodo National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site.