Word Stories: South America

This is the transcript for the English with Stephen podcast episode looking at the stories behind the names of the countries in South America.

Subscribe to your favourite podcast app to make sure you never miss another episode.

Subscribe to the podcast here!

Alternatively, sign up to get regular emails with all the latest information.

Hello and welcome! My name is Stephen and you are listening to English with Stephen, my podcast in which I try to help you learn English in under 10 minutes.

As regular listeners will know, I live in a city called Curitiba in the south of Brazil. I’ve lived in Brazil for about 15 years now, but I am still learning Portuguese because I will never stop learning Portuguese. Some people assume that I can speak Spanish, but this is not true. Brazilians speak Portuguese, not Spanish.

Brazil lies on the continent of South America, and today I am going to talk about the origin and meanings of the names of all the South American countries. Now, what constitutes South America is open to debate, depending on whether you are talking politics, culture, or geography. For this episode, I am going to talk only about the countries that are part of the landmass south of Panama. I am not going to include any islands or anything like that.

Can you name all of the countries in South America? Go on, have a go. Pause this podcast if you need to and make a list. I’ll even give you a clue. There are 13!

Did you get all of them? The list, in alphabetical order, is Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Columbia, Ecuador, France, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela.

Did you get all of them? What do you mean I made a mistake? That’s right, I said France. If you want to be picky I suppose you could say it is French Guyana, but this is a part of France, so I am not completely wrong.

Anyway, after the break, I am going to look at the names of all these countries and what they mean.

Before we look at the names of South American countries, I have a favour to ask. If you like this podcast, please subscribe to make sure you get every episode as it is released. You can subscribe on your favourite podcast app, if you have one. If you don’t have a podcast app, there is a list on the transcript for this episode on my site EnglishwithStephen.com. If you prefer to listen on my site, then make sure you sign up for regular emails so you know when each episode is live. Thank you.

Back to the names of South American countries. I am going to start with Brazil because, well, I live here so why not.

When the Portuguese ‘discovered’ Brazil in 1500, one of the first things they found was a tree which they named pau brasil. Pau, means wood or tree and brasil meant a colour similar to red or ember. The tree was used to produce dyes in Europe and it very quickly became the most important product exported to Portugal. In fact, it became so important that the area quickly became known as Terra do Brasil, or The Land of Brazil. It didn’t take too long for the country to simply be called Brazil.

At least, that is the official version. In what is probably just a coincidence, in Irish mythology, there was an island somewhere in the Atlantic called Hy Brasil, or Blessed Island. It was said that the land was full of tall, strong, and beautiful people. There was plenty of food and lots of sunshine. It was an idyllic place to live. But I am sure it is just a coincidence.

Turning now to Bolivia, this country was named after Simon Bolivar. Bolivar was the freedom fighter who was instrumental in gaining independence for many South American countries from the Spanish empire.

Further to southeast is Paraguay. Before the Europeans arrived, the local language was Guarani and the name of the country comes from this language. Paraguá meant a crown of feathers. Guay meant a river. So Paraguay means a river of feathers, presumably because there were so many birds around.

The next country is Uruguay. If the name sounds similar to Paraguay, you would be right as the people here also spoke Guarani before the Spanish arrived. The country sits on the east bank of the Rio de la Plata, which is Spanish for The River of Silver. The word ‘Uruguay’ was the Spanish pronunciation of the Guarani word for the river and probably meant ‘bird river’.

Next up, it’s Argentina, which is on the opposite side of the River of Silver to Uruguay and the word Argentina literally means ‘made of silver’. Silver was one of the things the Europeans were looking for in this area when they first arrived. However, although Argentina was always part of the Spanish empire until its independence, the word is not actually Spanish. It actually comes from Italian.

Our next stop is Chile. There is no agreement on where the name Chile comes from. Some say it was the name of the tribal chief in the area at the time the Incas conquered the territory. Others say it comes from an indigenous language, either a word that means ‘the end of the world’, ‘snow’ or ‘cold’, depending on the theory. Another theory claims it is an interpretation of the sound a local bird makes. We will probably never know the real origin.

Going further north, we have Peru. The origin of the word Peru is also obscure. There are two main theories. The first is that it was the name of a local ruler when the Spanish conquistadores first arrived. The second theory is that it was just the name of a local man, but the Spanish were confused because there was no common language and so assumed it was the name of the area.

The meaning of Ecuador is clear and unambiguous. It literally means ‘equator’.

Colombia is named after the Italian navigator Christopher Colombus.

There are two competing stories for the origin of the name Venezuela. The first, and most accepted, is that when a group of explorers arrived from Europe in 1499 the houses that they found around Lake Maracaibo reminded them of the houses in Venice, and so they named it Veneziola or Little Venice. The other story is that these same explorers found a tribe of people who called themselves Veneciuela and so the name developed from there.

There are two Guyanas. French Guyana and Guyana (previously British Guyana). This word comes from an indigenous language and meant ‘land of many waters’.

And finally, we have Suriname. Again, there are a couple of theories about the origin of this word. One is that it relates to a local tribe called Surinen who lived here when the Europeans first arrived. The second is that it is a corruption of the name the English gave the main river, which was Surryham. It was given this name to honour the Earl of Surrey when an English colony was first established in the area.

So that is all from me about the names of the countries of South America. I’d love to hear from you about the name of your country and what it means. You can either leave me a message on my site EnglishwithStephen.com, or you can find me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as English with Stephen.

So long, and take care!

Leave a Reply