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Place Names That Became Words

Toponyms That Led to Words (and Elements on the Periodic Table)


Volcano - Vulcan

Mt. Etna is shown in this photo of Sicily. The term volcano comes from the name of the Roman god Vulcan.

Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images
The scientific fields of toponymy (the study of place names) and etymology (the study of word origins) are vast. Knowing about the 'history' and the 'geography' of the words we can understand easily their meaning and, moreover, implement them correctly. Words such as 'tariff', 'marathon', 'spa', 'jeans', 'bungalow'* and so on refer to geographic objects that have given their names to these nouns. While toponyms are the names of specific places, geonyms are the names of geographic features. Some of these geonyms have particular origins related to exact locations. For instance, the geopolitical term for unwelcome fragmentation, balkanization, originates from the Balkan Peninsula's history in the twentieth century. 

Vulcano Island

Vulcano Island, one of the Aeolian Islands, north of Sicily, was named after the Roman equivalent of the god Hephaestus, Vulcan. The ancient peoples were convinced that the fiery hole on the top of this island was the workshop of the 'God-Blacksmith'. People just started to call all similar landforms 'vulcano' and nowadays volcano is a term widely used with different variations in all languages.


The chemical aspect of weathering and erosion is related to the karst process. Karst topography appears when soluble layers of bedrock (carbonate rocks such as limestone, dolomite and marble) interact with the acids in the water. In addition on the surface the karst phenomenon appears in subterranean conditions and that is why over 90% of all caves in the world are with karst origins.

Why do we use this strange word karst to describe these phenomena? A specific place can help us answer this question. The Serbian geographer Jovan Cvijić explored the Kras region in Slovenia and wrote an article titled 'The Karst Phenomenon' (1893) where he germanized the local name. His theory proved that the rock dissolution is the key process forming the specific landforms there and significantly contributed to the theoretical evolution of geomorphology since he graduated in Vienna.

Groups of Islands

Some terms come from the languages of the indigenous people who the Europeans had been meeting. For instance, the Dhivehi** word atoll (meaning lagoon-island) has come in use in English since the seventeenth century when the British sailors reached the Maldives.

Similar is the case with the archipelago but with some curious addition in fact. One of the arms of the Mediterranean Sea, the Aegean Sea, is well known for the numerous island chains. The local name in Greek sounds like 'Egeopelagus' (Aigaion pelagos). The Italian sailors adopted the name but extended the meaning to any sea group of islands. Moreover, they changed the original pronunciation and created the Greek-like word 'archipelago' by mistake. The term itself was introduced in the Modern Greek as a foreign word from Italian.


Just about everyone knows what a meander, a river curve, is. There are different conditions and stages for its formation. In the western parts of Turkey there exists a river named Büyük Menderes (translated as Big Meander). This land where the river flows used to be a part of Classical Greece and back then it was named Maíandros. The river course has so many curves alongside its direction, so, the people started to use the river's name to describe any similar river turn.

The Geography of the Periodic Table

Toponyms spread over other fields of knowledge. Many elements in the periodic table of the elements are meant to glorify geographical places. Some of the chemical elements are named after ancient, predominantly Latin, geographical locations. To name a few: Ruthenium (after Russia), Gallium (after Galia, the ancient name of France), Holmium (after Holmia, the Latin name of Stockholm), Thulium (after Thule, the ancient name of Scandinavia), Lutetium (after Lutetia, the ancient name of Paris), Hafnium (after Hafnia, the Latin name of Copenhagen), Hassium (after Hassia, the Latin name for the German state of Hesse).

Europium and Americium are named after continents. In the list of the glorified countries are Germany, France, Poland and India (Germanium, Francium, Polonium and Indium). Home to a productive quarry, the Swedish village Ytterby gave its name to three elements (Ytterbium, Erbium, Yttrium). The Scottish village Strontian has only one namesake (Strontium). Other elements with geographical names are Manganese and Magnesium (after Magnesia, a region in Greece), Scandium (Scandinavian peninsula), Californium (after California), Darmstadtium (after the city of Darmstadt in Germany), Dubnium (after the town Dubna in Russia) and Rhenium (after the Rhine River in Europe). The Platinum 'comes' from the Spanish platina del Pinto or the silver metal from the Pinto River, Columbia, while the world's leading chemistry research institute in Berkeley, California, commemorated with the Berkelium.


The list of the minerals named after specific locations or regions is large. For example, andalusite and aragonite are named after regions in Spain. The intrusive rock sienite 'originates' from the ancient name of Egyptian city of Aswan (Syene). The monzonites are firstly described in the Monzoni Mountains in Italy, the andesites are typical for the Andes, etc.

The situation with the stages in natural history is even richer. The geological time scale is generally constructed of periods named after particular places with specific outcrops. The first geological period of the Paleozoic era, the Cambrian, is named after the Latin name of Wales (Cambria). The second chronological period, the Ordovician, is derived from the name of the Celtic tribe of the Ordovices. The Silurian has a similar destiny, it is the namesake of Silures, another tribe. Devon is a county in southwestern England while the Carboniferous is divided in two parts (the earlier Mississippian and the later Pennsylvanian). The Permian honors Perm, a city in Russia. The Jura Mountains in West Europe gave the name of the famous Jurassic. Many other similar connections can be found in the inner division of each of the them.

* Tarifa is a Spanish town alongside the Strait of Gibraltar. In the past, the Arabs ruled the fortress there and each foreign vessel needed to pay a fee just to pass through the channel.
Marathon is a town in Greece and its distance to Athens is the equivalent for the Olympic discipline.
Spa is a municipality in Belgium having water with health-giving properties.
City of Genoa, Italy, is the place the first pair of jeans were made.
The Bengalese low building style in India is connected to the bungalows.

** Dhivehi is the language of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean.

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