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What's in a name? April 1, 2014

Poring over a map, tracing the lines of those perfect white sand beaches and working out how long it will take you to get from the airport to your sun lounger, is all part of the anticipation and excitement of planning that dream holiday. But have you ever stopped to wonder where exactly all those exotic sounding names on the map come from?

A glance at a map of the Caribbean is more than just an exercise in geographical orientation, it’s also a window on the fascinating history of the islands. The word ‘Caribbean’ itself refers to the Caribs, one of the indigenous groups present in the region when the first Europeans arrived. The Caribs are believed to have migrated from Venezuela around 1200 AD, establishing themselves throughout the archipelago, where they frequently came into conflict with the Taíno, another indigenous group that also originated in South America. However, a combination of warfare and infectious diseases had a disastrous effect on both the Carib and Taíno populations after the arrival of colonisers from Europe. Small communities of Caribs still survive, most notably in the Carib Territory on the east coast of Dominica, and Taíno culture lives on in place names such as Jamaica, from the Arawak word Xaymaca, meaning ‘Land of Wood and Water’ or ‘Land of Springs’. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the Caribbean we know today is largely defined by the colonial period.

Aerial Antigua

Take a closer look, and you’ll realise that many of the islands that we now think of as making up the ‘English Caribbean’ actually have Spanish names. Barbados means ‘bearded ones’ in Spanish (and Portuguese – no-one’s quite sure who reached the island first), and the name is believed to refer either to the long, hanging roots of the bearded fig tree, or to the bearded Caribs who inhabited the island. Many of the names the Spanish gave to the islands have religious roots: Antigua, meaning ‘old’ or ‘ancient’, is thought to have been named by Christopher Columbus after the icon of Santa María de la Antigua in Seville Cathedral, while Trinidad refers to the Holy Trinity and the Dominican Republic takes its name from Saint Dominic, or Santo Domingo, after whom the nation’s capital city is also named. You might assume that the little island of Dominica also takes its name from Saint Dominic, but it in fact comes from the Latin word for ‘Sunday’, since that is the day of the week on which it is said to have been spotted by Columbus.

Some of the more unusual names in the Caribbean include Tobago, from the same root as the word ‘tobacco’, possibly due to the island’s resemblance to a cigar. Fans of obscure Caribbean trivia will also be interested to note that Tobago was briefly colonised by the Duchy of Courland, a once independent territory in what is now Latvia, which holds the distinction of being the smallest nation to colonise the Americas, and you can still visit the ruins of Fort James, named after Jacobus, Duke of Courland, on Tobago’s west coast. Visitors to the Cayman Islands might be puzzled to find that there are no caimans here, but the islands were once home to significant numbers of their crocodile relatives before they were hunted to extinction by European settlers. The Turks and Caicos islands also owe their name to their natural environment; the ‘Turks’ part comes from the indigenous Turk’s-cap cactus, so called because the cactus looks a little like it’s wearing a fez (yes, really), while ‘Caicos’ comes from caya hico, meaning ‘string of islands’ in the language of the Lucayans, a Taíno people who once inhabited the Bahamas. The Bahamas, incidentally, is another Spanish name, derived from baja mar, meaning ‘shallow sea’ or ‘low tide’.


Of course, Caribtours is about more than just the Caribbean. Spinning our globe around and looking to the East, there are just as many fascinating stories bound up in the place names of Arabia and the Indian Ocean. Once upon a time, Dubai was just a small pearling town on the Persian Gulf, before later developing into a major trading hub, and although no one is certain where the name Dubai came from, some have suggested that it is derived from a word meaning ‘money’, due to the wealth of the merchants and traders who lived there. It certainly seems appropriate today, with Dubai’s skyline dominated by glittering skyscrapers and über-luxurious hotels. Less appealing is another theory, that the name came from the word daba, meaning baby locust, many of which inhabited the area prior to human settlement. Elsewhere in the UAE, the name Abu Dhabi can be translated either as ‘Father of deer’ or ‘Rich in deer’, presumably in reference to the Emirate’s native gazelles.

Skyline At Night

The island of Sri Lanka has been known by many names over the centuries. The Greeks called the island Taprobanê, thought to originate from an ancient Pāli word meaning ‘copper-coloured leaf’, while the old English name Ceylon is believed to have come from the Sanskrit word sinha, meaning ‘lion’, though there are no lions on the island. In Arabic and Persian, the island came to be known as Serendib, as made famous in the Persian fairytale ‘The Three Princes of Serendib’, in which the eponymous heroes were constantly discovering things that they weren’t looking for, from which the English word ‘serendipity’ was coined. In 1972, however, the island was officially renamed as Sri Lanka, meaning ‘resplendent island’ in Sanskrit, and we can’t really find fault with that description.

Curieuse island coast courtesy Raymond Sahuquet, Seychelles Tourist Board

Rather more straightforward are the Seychelles, named after Jean Moreau de Séchelles, Louise XV’s Minister of Finance. Elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was known as Dina Arobi (‘abandoned island’) by the Arab sailors who first discovered it, then later Ilha do Cirne by the Portuguese (‘island of the swan’), before the Dutch arrived and named it Mauritius, after Prince Maurice van Nassau. Perhaps the most evocative name in the Indian Ocean, however, is the Maldives, believed to derive from a Sanskrit name meaning ‘garland of islands’ or ‘necklace islands’. Take a look at the clustered coral atolls on a map, and you can’t help but notice how perfect a name it is.


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