How Naming the Continents Works

Continents may be constantly shifting and changing, but to most people, their shapes are as recognizable as faces.
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Continents are not the unchanging, universally recognized land masses of our elementary school studies. They were discovered by ocean-going explorers, sometimes with multiple people claiming the initial discovery. They were demarcated and named by men for political, often self-serving reasons. And they have shifted and changed shape over time. Our planet looks dramatically different than it did millions of years ago. But the continents as we know them now are an integral part of our geographical understanding of our world.

As important as geographical boundaries are for national and cultural identity, so do names count in our conception of who we are and where we come from. Imagine the confusion when the country you live in is actually positioned on two different continents, as is the case in more than one instance. This is one of the times when the term "Eurasia" comes in handy.


Even the number of continents is a subject of dispute. Different places in the world recognize different continents; the seven continents as taught in most of the West are only one way of looking at the continental geography of Earth. In this article, we'll learn about how the continents we know now -- Africa, Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America and South America -- came about as distinct entities, find out different theories concerning where their names come from, see how our view of them has changed over the years, and learn why some of the continents don't even really fit the definition of "continent."

To begin, let's take a look at the world before there were any distinct continents at all. Scientists now believe that 200 million years ago, all of the land on Earth was connected in a single, unbroken mass surrounded by water -- a supercontinent. They call that ancient supercontinent Pangaea. The name is a logical choice. Find out why in the next section.


Before There Were Continents

The German geologist Alfred Wegener was the first to use the term Pangaea.
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Until the end of the Jurassic period, we could have walked from North America to Europe. Of course, there were no humans on Earth during the Jurassic period, and neither "North America" nor "Europe" existed yet. There was no ocean separating different land masses. The theory currently accepted by the scientific community is that a single land mass called Pangaea slowly separated by way of continental drift. This "supercontinent" was a true continent -- a single land mass surrounded by water.

Most of us now understand that there are plates shifting under the land we stand on. We see this shifting on the surface in the form of volcanoes and earthquakes. The study of these tectonic plates, though, is a relatively recent development. It began in earnest in 1915, when a German geologist named Alfred Wegener first published his theory that Earth's land masses are essentially floating on a molten layer of magma (see How Earthquakes Work).


Wegener was the first to use the term Pangaea. His work set forth the idea that 200 million years ago, there was a single land mass on Earth. "Pangaea" is Greek for "all lands" or "all-Earth." Pangaea was surrounded by a single ocean that covered the rest of the Earth. Over time, as the magma heated up the Earth's crust and caused fissures, the crust and the land above it drifted apart. It didn't immediately break up into the pieces that show up on today's maps. What we see now is the result of millions of years of drifting. Wegener believed that the first break resulted in just two continents, and successive breaks over time ultimately left us with the current geography of Earth.

If the theory of continental drift is true, then our current continents are temporary formations. The makeup of the Earth will continue to change as magma continues to affect the crust on which our continents sit.

The continents we see on our globes will be around for a while, though, and many of us still chant "North America, South America, Europe and Asia, Africa Australia, Antarctica" when we need to recall their names. So, how did those well-ingrained names come about? Who decided to honor explorer Amerigo Vespucci with a continent, and is America even named after him? Find out in the next section.


Continents by Discovery

The origins of "America" are bit obscure. A dancer performs next to a globe during the UN Climate Change Conference in 2007.
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When it comes to the etymology of continent names, it seems logical that they would be named after the people who discovered them. In fact, the precise origins of the names are difficult to prove. In most cases, experts have only conjecture to go by, often drawn from early writings and maps. One notable exception is Antarctica.

It's surprising to have a modern newspaper article reporting the naming of a new continent; but in the case of Antarctica, we do. A New York Times article dated March 13, 1904, describes the naming of the frigid land at the South Pole [source: New York Times]. First described as a continent by Sir John Murray in the late 1800s, explorers confirmed the designation in 1904 and set about naming the latest addition to the map. Geographers took their cue from Murray, who had suggested "Antarctica," a combination of "ant" (opposite) and "arctic" (of the North Pole).


The origins of "America" are hazier. Most of us learned that the Americas were named after European explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who was the first to recognize the area as a previously unknown land mass. Christopher Columbus, until his death, believed he had come ashore at the East Indies. Vespucci, who came afterward, rightly believed Columbus had stumbled upon a different land altogether.

North and South America may indeed have been named for Vespucci; that's the most widely accepted theory. It makes sense: Amerigo Vespucci was the first to recognize that the land Columbus discovered was an entirely different continent. Also, the creator of the first known map to label the continent "America," German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller, actually explained that he was using the name in honor of Vespucci. This map is dated 1507.

Still, there are other theories. One states that the term comes from the Ameriqque mountains in Nicaragua. Experts believe that both Columbus and Vespucci visited these mountains after American natives clued them in that there was gold there. And gold is a significant driving force behind the discovery of new lands. A less convincing but more amusing theory ties the name to a British royal representative named Richard Amerike. Legend has it that the explorer John Cabot (who in 1497 was the first to sail to the New World under the English flag) received a very large reward upon his return to England, and it was Amerike who put it in his hands. The story goes that Cabot was so happy with the size of the reward that he named the continent for the man who gave it to him.

The name "Australia," for more concrete reasons, has likewise evolved into a bit of a mystery. Until recently, experts believed fairly definitively that the continent was named "Australia" by Matthew Flinders in 1802. Flinders was the first to circumnavigate the land mass, and he later created a map that named the continent Australia. The Latin "Australis" mean "southern." But now, experts aren't so sure it was Flinders who named the southern land mass. In the late 20th century, the National Library of Australia came upon a different document labeling the continent "Australia." This one was created by the German astronomer Cyriaco Jacob zum Barth in 1545.

Etymology is an inexact science, and the rest of the continent names have even hazier histories. The theories are very logical, though. Who can argue that Africa isn't "sunny" -- or, in Latin, "aprica"?


Continents by Oral Tradition

Phoenician sailors may have been responsible for naming Europe and Asia.
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The rest of the continents -- Africa, Asia and Europe -- were most likely named by the sailors who frequented their ports on naval and merchant voyages, but no one knows for sure. Asia may have initially been named for the Trojan ruler Asios. The name "Asia" (in its Greek form) is found in writings dating back to 440 B.C.

Some believe the names "Europe" and "Asia" come from Phoenician sailors who designated between the two destinations by the movement of the sun. "Asia" may reflect the word "acu," for "sunrise" or "east." Europe, which lies to the west of Asia, may be drawn from the Phoenician word "ereb," which means "sunset" or "west." Others propose that Europe was named for the character Europa from Greek mythology, who has connections to both the sun and the moon and is best known for being abducted and raped by Zeus.


"Africa" may have its roots in the Afarak people, a Berber tribe in the northern part of the continent; it may also stem from the Greek "aprike," which means "free from cold," or the Latin "aprica" -- "sunny."

Regardless of their exact origins, the names most likely came from simple oral use; sailors had to call the places something, so they made something up. After a while, the names stuck, eventually showing up in writings and on maps.

The origins of the continents' names are not written in stone, and neither are the boundaries. Ultimately, borders between continents are nearly as politically determined as borders between nations. For instance, neither Europe nor Asia is by definition a continent; neither is completely surrounded by water. They're connected, with the boundary between the two running through both Turkey and Russia, defined by mountain ranges. They were likely designated separate continents for reasons linked to nationalism and racial, cultural and trade distinctions. Likewise, North and South America are connected.

For these reasons, in certain parts of the world, people recognize only five continents: The Americas, Africa, Eurasia, Antarctica and Australia. In other parts, there are six continents, and in yet other areas there are seven. Geography, it seems, can be a very political discipline.

For more information on continents, plate tectonics and geographical politics, explore the links on the next page.


How Naming the Continents Works: Author's Note

When I learned about the continents in school, the designations seemed so permanent, the land masses such a staple element of geography they were almost on the level of hemispheres. You memorize them. You sing about them. You identify them on tests.

That the continental designations are, in fact, so politically and culturally motivated as to be practically random -- four of the seven recognized in the West don't even meet the definition of "continent" -- was attention-grabbing. Did I even learn that in elementary school? What will my daughter learn in geography class?


I would have loved to include a map from the days before seven (or six or five) named continents, but it turns out it's tough to read them at just 400 pixels wide. If you do a Google search for "historical maps," though, you'll find countless examples. The ones showing routes of exploration are especially worth a look, since many of those explorers had hardly a clue where they'd come ashore.

  • Antarctica. The New York Times. March 13, 1904.
  • Asia -- Continent Facts. 4 Corners Club.
  • Cohen, Jonathan. The Naming of America: Fragments We've Shored Against Ourselves. Stony Brook University.
  • Continents. World Atlas.
  • The Continents. InfoPlease.
  • Etymology of Pangaea. GSA.
  • Mason, Wyatt. I Am America. (And So?). The New York Times.
  • Nantambu, Kwame. PhD. Origin of Terms "Negro" and Afrika.
  • Pangaea. EnchantedLearning. dinosaurs/glossary/Pangaea.shtml
  • The Pangaea Theory. ThinkQuest.
  • Was Australia Named in 1545? National Library of Australia.


Naming the Continents: Cheat Sheet

Stuff you need to know:
  • Scientists believe that 200 million years ago, there was just a single, connected land mass. They've named it Pangaea, which is Greek for "all lands."
  • Antarctica officially received its name in March 1904, derived from ant (opposite) and arctic (of the North Pole).
  • It's possible that "America" is not, in fact, named for Amerigo Vespucci. One lesser-known theory posits the continent is named for the Ameriqque Mountains in Nicaragua, which were believed to be rich in gold.
  • Until a few decades ago, experts were pretty sure "Australia" was coined in 1802. Then the National Library of Australia stumbled upon a map dated 1545 with the continent labeled "Australia."
  • Both Turkey and Russia reside on two continents, Europe and Asia, which aren't exactly continents because neither is completely surrounded by water. North and South America aren't technically continents, either.
Now, test your knowledge with these quizzes!
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