How We Got the Name America

AFTER having been discovered by mistake, America was named by mistake . . . the two biggest mistakes in history. Had Columbus known what he really had found and proclaimed it to Europe, America would be Columbia and ourselves Columbians. Instead he reported the finding of only some outlying parts of Asia. Thus he missed having a hemisphere for a namesake, and the most imposing honor in geographical nomenclature that has fallen to a mortal was blunderingly bestowed upon a man who was not the discoverer of anything.

When there were yet no newspapers, a man could have a "good press" only by being his own press agent. Columbus was a poor reporter; also an unlucky one. His first report he threw overboard in a barrel, when he feared his boat would not weather a furious storm that beat upon her, and the barrel was never found. All efforts have been baffled to find two letters that he wrote after he had landed in safely. Only one copy has survived of another letter, which was printed, and this copy is in the New York Public Library. A second edition of it was published, and a solitary copy of that is in the Ambrosian Library at Milan.

Amerigo Vespucci, like Columbus, was an Italian. When Italy was the unrivaled center of European learning, art, commerce and the amenities of life, naturally her sons played leading roles in the great drama of discovery. The story of Marco Polo, the Venetian traveler in the East, inspired Columbus, the Genoese, who was so fascinated by it that he missed the meaning of the greater goal which he attained in his voyages. Another Genoese, John Cabot, discovered North America for England. France derived her counter claim from a Florentine, Giovanni Verrazano, who sailed under a French commission.

Amerigo was an employé of the Medici, those apothecaries of Florence who turned money lenders under the sign of three golden pills and thereby gave a symbol to the whole tribe of pawnbrokers. Having been sent out to Spain by his patrons, Vespucci evolved into a thrifty shipping contractor at Seville in the glorious era of exploration. Soon he himself was tempted to go abroad strange countries for to see. Being an amateur geographer, astronomer and naturalist, he went along as somewhat more than a passenger.

After one of his several trips across the Atlantic, Amerigo dropped a personal letter to his old employer in Florence, Lorenzo de Medici. Like the race of travelers as a whole, he did not let his modesty spoil a good story of how he had found "a new world," which was "more thickly inhabited by peoples and animals than our Europe or Asia or Africa." With that sensational introduction, which a 20th Century reporter could not improve, he proceeded to unfold a tale with a thrill in every line.

Nor were the Italians slower than the modern press in sensing the news value of that private letter and in rushing it into type—the newly invented type. Nor could an American headline artist in our day outscream that pioneer in his art who headed up Amerigo's story: "Mundus Novus!" "The New World!"

Generations of historians have abused Amerigo for having attempted to steal from Columbus the glory of the discovery. Ralph Waldo Emerson boiled over with rage that America should have been christened for a thief: "the pickle dealer of Seville who . . . managed in this lying world to supplant Columbus and baptize half the earth with his dishonest name."

There is no evidence that Amerigo intended any such monumental imposture. He did not write for publication, and the printer or editor who gave to the letter its catchy heading has a larger share of responsibility for the misnaming of America.

In the form of a four-leaved pamphlet, that printed letter was one of the best sellers, if not the best, in the then short history of printing. The Latin translation ran into 11 and a German into eight editions in two years. Forty years saw 40 editions of the Latin.

The actual christening of America remained for still another genius in headlining. A youthful professor at the College of Saint Die, in France, hastened to get out a geography of the re-made world. What was more logical than for him to name the nameless new continent after the writer of the letter that had brought him the first news of the discovery? Vespucci hardly would do. Nor would Amerigo harmonize well with Europe, Asia and Africa. And the young man of Saint Die invented America. Straightway all the world fell into the error, with Spain alone resisting it for 250 years.

The name America was bestowed by the Saint Die map upon only that part of the western hemisphere which is represented by Brazil today. Slowly it spread itself over all the new world, but only to be appropriated, at last, by one Nation alone. And that Nation in a continent unknown alike to Vespucci and to Columbus!

James Morgan, Daily Boston Globe, Oct 5, 1937, p. 18