GENEVA -- Centuries before it became a continent or country synonymous with wealth, power, freedom or democracy, "America" was coined by a Renaissance cartographer as the catchall designation for a world that Europeans had yet to name or explore.Let's skip the politics, and get into the interesting part of the story:
The name stuck despite its humble history and unsure start at a backwater French court. It celebrates the 500th anniversary of its baptism in the remote town of St. Die today, exactly a half-millennium after its first use on a world map.
The murky origins are causing problems in winning recognition for the source. A resolution citing cartographer Martin Waldseemueller and the conference organized by Rene II, the Duke of Lorraine, for their unique contribution to American history has yet to make headway in the U.S. Congress.
Sometimes called America's birth certificate, the map and accompanying 103-page "Cosmographiae Introductio" caused the hemisphere to be named for explorer Amerigo Vespucci instead of Christopher Columbus.
"AMERICA," in capital letters, appears on a part of the map showing what is now Brazil. The first map to depict a separate Western Hemisphere and a separate Pacific Ocean, it also included an inset of North and South America, and a portrait of "Amerigi Vespucci," whom Waldseemueller honored for being the first to identify the New World as a new land mass.
Columbus believed to his death in 1506 that his four voyages had all been to Asia. Vespucci, an Italian who came to the New World soon after Columbus, sailed along South America's north and east coast.
"Europe and Asia have received names of women," Waldseemueller wrote in the book first released to the public on April 25, 1507. "I see no reason why we should not call this other part 'Amerige,' that is to say the land of Americus, or America, after the sagacious discoverer."
The full title for the 12-panel map covering 36 square feet was "a drawing of the whole earth following the tradition of Ptolemy and the travels of Amerigo Vespucci and others." It has been housed since 2003 in the Library of Congress, which paid $10 million in making the map the most expensive single item it had ever acquired.
"It is remarkable that the entire Western Hemisphere was named for a living person; Vespucci did not die until 1512," wrote John R. Hebert, the library's chief of the geography and map division.
Of course, it is one thing to assign a name, it's another to make it stick. And what was the glue that affixed "America" to the New World for all time?
But Hebert said America was not universally accepted after its baptism. Waldseemueller, perhaps in an indication of second thoughts, removed America from later geographical works in the next decade, substituting "terra incognita" (unknown land) for both continents, or "terra nova" (new world) for South America and "Cuba" for North America.
Printers, however, reinserted America after Waldseemueller's death. The name was later used by other cartographers, earning widespread acceptance for both continents by the late 1530s.
"It was appropriate," wrote Daniel Boorstin, the late historian and former librarian of Congress, "that the name America should be affixed on the New World in a manner casual and accidental, since the European encounter with this new world had been so unintentional."
It was the power of the printing press, another illustration of media ecology shaping history, and geography! As Boorstin explains in his excellent book The Discoverers (a work full of media ecological insight), by the time people realized that Columbus was the true discoverer of the Western Hemisphere, and despite efforts to change the name of the New World to the more appropriate designation of "Columbia," it was too late. The name "America" had been too widely disseminated, too well publicized, too effectively preserved in the print media.
So, happy 500th to one hell of a misnomer!