Naming America…

December 30, 2009

Smithsonian is, unfortunately, a forgotten magazine. Their tissue-paper-with-three-staples physical product is absolutely sub-par compared to their main competitors, National Geographic and The New Yorker. In a display that blends The Economist‘s rigidity and Newsweek‘s aggressive palette, Smithsonian cannot find an artistic directive that satisfies this reader. Their founding editor’s mission statement labels the magazine as a knockoff: the “best of the old Life [Magazine],” he writes in his memoir. Their branding relies entirely on the name recognition of their benefactor, the Smithsonian Institute, which provides a mental restriction to the would-be new reader who may assume it to be a niche magazine for museum exhibitions. Everything about the magazine as consumer product is wrong.

Yet, it is certainly one of the best items $12 per year can buy. Every issue lives up to the promise of raising issues “which the Smithsonian [Institution] is interested, might be interested or ought to be interested.” And that goes for me too: as a taxpayer, I am part of the Smithsonian Institution, and I am interested. I am proud that the articles impress and the photography stuns. It is a nationalistic thing, no doubt, for there is no American journal that presents such unbiased, high caliber work minus the pretense (and baggage) of NatGeo‘s PC, secular humanism.

But this is silly space filler. What I really want to discuss is a fascinating article in the December 2009 edition, entitled “Putting America on the Map.” A copy of the article is available online. Written by Toby Lester, the report tells the story of how the American continent (originally it was considered one of four in the world) was named, which makes for a very interesting tale.

Apparently, two little known German scholars (Matthias Ringmann & Martin Waldseemüller) proposed the name in their 1507 Introduction to Cosmography. The book, which provided a new (pretentious) Latin description of what they believed to be the whole world along with details of Amerigo Vespucci’s four voyages, was somehow widely distributed, so much so that the term was applied to maps produced by the century’s most well-known cartographer, Gerardus Mercator. [He made the additional distinction of North and South on his 1538 world map, which we have obviously retained] The Introduction to Cosmography was inevitably shelved, as all stories must be at some point, only to be rediscovered in the 18th century. Society then was baffled: were these two fathers of the new continent?

The Waldseemüller Map of 1507 contained within the "Introduction to Cosmography"

The book (and the large printing of its accompanying map that became the most modern and correct of the time) derived much of its “world” from Claudius Ptolemy’s Geographia, circa the second century CE, as was traditionally the case of cosmographers of this age. Their descriptions of Europe and Northern Africa largely mimicked those of Ptolemy, as well as much of their knowledge of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (augmented by Marco Polo’s travels and descriptions). But where they differed was the introduction of a new landmass “stretching almost from the map’s top to its bottom…long and thin and mostly blank.” This bore the name they had given it: America.

Why that name? The chapter which discusses this new land says:

“These parts [Asia, Africa and Europe] have in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci (as will be heard in what follows). Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this [new part] from being called Amerigen – the land of Amerigo, as it were – or America, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of perceptive character.”

That is all well and good. Amerigo was believed to lead this discovery, so why not receive the credit? But with a little more analysis of the term Amerigen, we see how very clever these two men were. The term Amerigen is believed to be a combination of the discoverer’s name and the Greek word gen- the accusative form of the word earth. But there is another meaning as well. “Gen can also mean ‘born’ in Greek, and the word ameros can mean ‘new,’ making it possible to read Amerigen as not only ‘land of Amerigo’ but also ‘born new’- a double-entendre…and one that very nicely complements the idea of fertility that he associated with female names.” America, then, is the Latinized/feminized form of Amerigen. In any case, these two are amazing.

But, as the article points out, the work of two significantly became the works of two men. With such an extensive reliance on Latin and Greek, scholars now believe the written portion of the Introduction to be the work of Ringmann (including the naming of the new world), while the map itself became associated with Waldseemüller. After Ringmann’s very unexpected death at a young age, Waldseemüller continued to make maps and catalogs of the now “known” world. However, he discontinued use of the term America. In a telling quote, revealing the artistic differences of the two men,
“We will seem to you, reader, previously to have diligently presented and shown a representation of the world that was filled with error, wonder, and confusion…. As we have lately come to understand, our previous representation pleased very few people. Therefore, since true seekers of knowledge rarely color their words in confusing rhetoric, and do not embellish facts with charm but instead with a venerable abundance of simplicity, we must say that we cover our heads with a humble hood.”
In any case, who knew all this? My lack of American history knowledge is painfully obvious in moments like this. But I am prepared to make up for the deficit, and I think you may wish to join me.
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