Edward Gibbon, 1776
Everyone loves a good nickname – and countries are no different! Europe, itself often referred to as ‘the old continent’, is home to the greatest variety of country aliases. Have you ever wondered what your neighbouring country’s nicknames are, and how they got them? Do you know which European country is considered the Land of a Thousand Lakes? Which one bears the monicker the Land of Strokes? Or Land of Roses? Where do the nicknames ‘Albion’, ‘Hellas’, ‘Magyars’ or ‘Lusitania’ come from? Whether you’re a globe-trotter eager to know how a country’s known when among friends; or a journalist desperately looking for that precious second mention: this article is for you! Now, take your boots, wear a bull skin, cross the Emerald Isle, and join us in the heart of Europe!
Are we really gonna start this European tour with a misuse of language? You bet! As you may know, Portugal is sometimes referred to as Lusitania, but that is taking something of a geographical liberty: two centuries before Christ, the Roman province called Lusitania only comprised the area south of the Douro river, as well as a part of modern Spain. This region includes for around 80% of modern-day Portugal, which explains why the terms Lusitania and Lusitanic are still sometimes used to refer to the country as a whole (and Lusophone for nations that share its language), especially in formal or literary contexts. But in other usages it’s fallen out of fashion: the 16th century colony originally known as New Lusitania is today much better (and more snappily) known as Brazil.
Other nicknames for Portugal include: The Rectangle (O Rectângulo); land of the three F’s (Fado music, the Fátima pilgrimage, and Futebol); the Iberian Peninsula (together with Spain).
The Bull Skin
You may have not heard of it, but Spanish people sometimes refer to their country as La Piel de Toro (The Bull Skin). That’s thanks to the imagination of Greek geographer Strabonis, who compared the shape of the country to a bull skin stretched out under the sun – and is also, no doubt, a reference to the country’s longstanding obsession with bull-related activities. In fact Spain has been through a bunch of different names throughout history. The North Africans who first crossed the Straits of Gibraltar called it Iberia, the “land of rivers”, after “Iber”, a river. When the Greeks invaded, they called it Hesperia, “land of the setting sun”. Meanwhile, the Carthaginians, arriving around 300 BC, came up with Ispania, “land of the rabbits”; later latinised by the Romans to Hispania, and subsequently España. So, macho Spaniards take note: your country is actually named, not after the virile bull, but the bunny.
Other nicknames for Spain include: Land of Cervantes (Patria de Cervantes), Iberian Peninsula (together with Portugal)
Stretching about 1000 km from top to bottom, and about the same from side to side, France is the largest country in Western Europe. Take out the (not inconsiderable) overseas territories of La Reunion, Mayotte, Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana, plus the island of Corsica, and the shape of mainland France almost perfectly fits into a six sided shape: hence, the Hexagon, a term beloved by French politicians and journalists alike. This is also rather convenient for French schoolchildren, who learn how to draw their country by first constructing a hexagon.
Other nicknames for France include: Gaul (la Gaule), Sweet France (Douce France), the Land of Human Rights (Patrie des droits de l’Homme), the Land of Molière (le Pays de Molière), the Land of the Enlightenment (le Pays des Lumières), the Land of Republican Universalism (le Pays de l’Universalisme républicain), the Church’s older sister (La soeur ainée de l’Eglise). Arrogant, moi?
The Land of Fire and Ice
A country of outstanding natural beauty, Iceland is sometimes called the “Land of Fire and Ice” because of its extreme landscapes – with glaciers and volcanic springs located next to each other. A very appropriate nickname, then, for a country which counts no fewer than 30 active volcanic systems amounting to a third of the world’s total lava output. But in fact, while this dramatic monicker is useful marketing for the Iceland tourist board (and inspiration for George R R Martin), Icelanders themselves use many different names and paraphrases to refer to their country: “the queen of the mountain” (Fjalladrottning), “the young woman of the glacier” (Jökulmær), “the snow land” (Snæland) or “the ice cover” (Klakinn). How poetic!
Other nicknames for Iceland include: The Blue Land (Landið bláa), Beautiful Land of Ice (Fögru landi ísa), The Reef (Skerið), Thule, Fold
The Emerald Isle
How did Ireland come to be called the Emerald Isle? Its resplendent greenery played a big part of course, but there’s more to the story than that. The expression’s first appearance in print was in a poem by William Drennan, a chief architect of the Society of United Irishmen, entitled “When Erin First Rose“, of which one stanza reads, “Arm of Erin, be strong! but be gentle as brave; And uplifted to strike, be still ready to save; Let no feeling of vengeance presume to defile; The cause of, or men of, the Emerald Isle.” When Drennan died in 1820, in a final symbolic gesture, he insisted his coffin be carried by three Protestants and three Catholics.
Other nicknames for Ireland include: the Green Isle, the Grin Erin (Glais n-Éirinn), the Celtic Tiger (An Tíogar Ceilteach), the Poor old woman (Sean Bhean Bhocht), Silk of the kine (Síoda na mbó), Banba, Fodla, Hibernia (all poetic names)
The term “Albion” comes from the Latin word ‘alba‘, or ‘white’, used by many classical Greek writers presumably in reference to the white cliffs of Dover. Later, in the 12th century, the word became part of a legend, as a popular folk tale explained how the Giants of Albion were the original inhabitants of the island. It is only from the seventeenth century that the term Albion was associated with treachery and infidelity in the pejorative phrase ‘Perfidious Albion’. You don’t need to wander too far to find the culprit: you guessed it, it’s the French to blame! The phrase was first coined by 17th-century theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet who used the term “perfidious” in its more religious sense of “the country that lost its faith” and later popularised by his countryman, playwright Augustin Louis de Ximénès, who wrote in 1793: “Let us attack perfidious Albion in her waters“. Ah! The joys of neighbourly relations…
Other nicknames for the United Kingdom include: Great Britain (obviously!), Britannia, blighty, this sceptred Isle
The Land of the Midnight Sun
The sun at midnight: must be a joke right? Not if you live far enough north, it isn’t! Norway, the Land of the Midnight Sun, is so-called because the northern tip is located above the Arctic circle, where the sun shines 20 hours a day from Mid-May to Mid-July. Midnight sun is a natural phenomenon which reaches its peak during the summer solstice, duly celebrated by Norwegians each year on 21 June. It’s a double edged sword for the Norwegians, though, as they suffer long months of darkness during the winter, which they don’t even get to hibernate through.
Other nicknames for Norway include: The Land Of Fjords, The Land Of Trolls, The Land Of Vikings
The Elongated Country
Yes, you got it right… Swedes have a marvellous and somewhat equivocal nickname for their country: Det avlånga landet, the elongated country. It is not a phrase commonly used outside the country, but Swedes themselves love to point out the fact that their territory stretches 1600 kilometres from top to bottom. And they go on and on with different figurative nicknames based on their country’s shape, such as Landet Falukorv – a typical traditional medium fat sausage everyone eats in Sweden, to Landet mellanmjölk – a kind of milk packaging invented there. Younger generations do not bother with elaborated metaphor: they just call their country En slak kuk, which elegantly means… a limp penis! All this is quite paradoxical with another common nickname Swedes give to their country: Landet lagom, the moderate land where everything is done “just the right amount”, neither too much nor too little.
Other nicknames for Sweden include: Mother Svea (Moder Svea), Svedala
The Land of a Thousand Lakes
Finland is called ‘The Land of a Thousand Lakes‘, but that’s rather an understatement: at last count there were 187,888 of them – one lake for every 26 people, and more per square kilometre than any other country, with some 10% of the inland country covered by water. This would explain why Finns feel a certain closeness to the element of water, and why lakes are the source of so many Finns’ livelihood. We can trace back the origin of the nickname to a verse of a Finnish song whose text was published in English in 1851; the term was also used in the titles of several books from the 1890s relating to Finland.
Other nicknames for Finland include: Strawberry Land, The Land of a Thousand Heroes, Marsh Land, Last Born Daughter of the Sea.
If you are passionate about Denmark and read some of its literature, you may come up sooner or later with the word Danevang, sometimes also spelled Dannevang. This term, known only by Danes, actually expresses an idea that is somewhat untranslatable. The words Mark (as in ‘Dane-mark’) and Vang (as in ‘Dane-vang’) both mean ‘field’. But Danevang sounds a bit more romantic, and often used to express a kind of national nostalgia, especially for people living abroad. If the nickname is kept reserved for use by the Danes themselves, we can all relate to the kind of nostalgia the word invokes: for example, when you open an old box of Lego that’s been hiding at the back of your closet for years, and find yourself transported back to your childhood.. Ah, Lego… maybe that’s why Danish children are also said to be living in ‘the Happiest Country in the World’!
Other nicknames for Denmark include: The World’s Oldest Monarchy, The Happiest Country in the World
Have you ever heard of the figure of speech called a ‘pars pro toto’? This fine Latin phrase means that something is referred to by means of one of its constituent parts – the term literally translates as “a part (taken) for the whole”. So why are we talking about this? Because Holland may be the most famous illustration of the genre: the term Holland, in fact just one region and former province on the western coast of the Netherlands, is frequently used to refer to the whole nation. Some claim that this loose usage misrepresents the country, as the Holland region only accounts for 32% of Dutch surface area and 37% of population. But this region has been historically the most powerful region, dominating foreign trade: hence most of the Dutch traders encountered by foreigners were from Holland.
Other nicknames for the Netherlands include: the Low Countries, the Land of Tulips and Windmills (Het Land Van Tulpen en Windmolens), The Land of Velvet (Het Land van Fluwel)
The Flat Country
No need to ask why: Belgium is a flat country, end of story. Relatively speaking, anyway. The country ranges from sea level at its northern coast, to a high point of just 2,277 feet (694 m), at Signal de Botrange, in Liege province to the east. The rest of the country features a relatively flat topography consisting of coastal plains in the northwest and gently rolling hills throughout the country’s central portion. In 1962, this inspired Belgian songsmith Jacques Brel to compose one of his most famous melodies, Le Plat Pays (“Mijn vlakke land” in Flemish). Brel sings that “cathedrals are the only mountains my country has” and that the sky is “so low” that “a canal gets lost”. All this, Brel claims, made his people naturally humble…
Other nicknames for Belgium include: the land of surrealism (le pays du surréalisme); or, for the French, Outre-Quiévrain (‘on the other side of Quiévrain’, referring to a town on the Franco-Belgian border).
The Grand Duchy
It’s quite normal to give inappropriate nicknames to objects, people or, here, countries – a way of pretending they are exactly the opposite of what they really are. If you don’t believe me, just ask citizens of the former German Democratic Republic whether they really lived in a democracy. Likewise for the Democratic People’s Republic of (North) Korea – if you can find a citizen prepared to give you an honest answer. Not that Luxembourg is undemocratic, of course: but you’ll agree that describing this landlocked country as “grand” is perhaps a slightly misleading way of referring to the sixth smallest nation in Europe. In reality, the term has nothing to do with size, but to its ruler who bears the relatively rare title of Grand Duke, a somewhat more modest title than that held by the rulers of neighbouring kingdoms.
Other nicknames for Luxembourg include: The Green Heart of Europe, Gibraltar of the North.
The Land of Poets and Thinkers
It may have escaped your notice, but Germany is actually Das Land der Dichter und Denker – ‘the country of poets and thinkers‘. Never a people to fail to blow their own trumpet, this is, fairly obviously, a nickname they gave themselves. (And common decency means we are going to skip over the many different and colourful sobriquets Germans were awarded by their neighbours at various times over the last, turbulent century). Nonetheless, the nickname ‘The country of poets and thinkers’ is well deserved: it is hard to deny that many famous cultural icons have come from Germany, producing popular philosophical teachings, useful scientific discoveries, and more hummable musical works than you could shake a conductor’s baton at.
Other nicknames for Germany include: The Land of the Teutons; for the French, Across the Rhine (‘Outre-Rhin’)
The Musical Centre of Europe
From roughly 1750 to 1820, the Austrian capital of Vienna became ‘The Musical Centre of Europe’, and works of the period are often referred to as being in the Viennese style. Composers came from all over Europe to train in and around Vienna, and gradually they developed and formalised the standard musical forms that were to predominate European musical culture for the next several decades. The Classical period reached its culmination with the masterful symphonies, sonatas, and string quartets by the three great composers of the Viennese school: Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven. Later on, the first stirrings of the Romantic movement can be heard in the lyrical songs of Viennese composer Franz Schubert, while the city was also later home to Brahms, Mahler, Liszt, Schoenberg and all three Strausses. With its 2014 Eurovision triumph, perhaps Austria still lives up to its reputation…
“Who run the world? Girls!” said Beyoncé once – well, actually several times if you listen to the whole chorus. She might have been right when it comes to Switzerland, whose actual nickname, Helvetia, is nothing less than the female personification of the country. Her name is a derivation of the ethnonym Helvetii, the name of the Gaulish tribe inhabiting the Swiss Plateau prior to the Roman conquest. In some languages the word still serves as the name for Switzerland: including Irish (An Eilvéis), Greek (Ελβετία/Elvetia) and Romanian, Elveţia. In Italian, though Elvezia is now archaic, the name survives on in the adjective elvetico, a common synonym for svizzero; likewise for the French, who will be heard referring to their neighbours as les Helvètes.
Other nicknames for Switzerland include: the Confederation (la Confédération), The Land of Milk and Honey (le Pays du Lait et du Miel), Land of chocolate and cuckoo clocks (le Pays du Chocolat et des Horloges), the Water Tower of Europe (Le château d’eau de l’Europe), The Playground of Europe (La Cour de récréation de l’Europe)
In 1695, the British Thesurus Geographicus referred to Italy as The Boot for (as far as we know) the first time in history. The description went as following: “The Figure or Shape of this Country is very Remarkable, and may be well compar’d to that of a Man’s Leg, the End whereof seems as it were to kick the Island of Siciliy into the Sea; Italy is stretched forth toward the South, as it were a Peninsule, in form of a Boot, into the Mediterranean-Sea…”. In fact three smaller peninsulas each form a distinct part of the anatomy of what Italians call lo Stivale: Calabria (the “toe”), Salento (the “heel”) and Gargano (the “spur”). Though high heeled shoes may not have existed back in 1695, you can bet that fashion designers took inspiration from the peninsula to design what would become later a women’s worst nightmare, and a drag queen’s emblematic accessory!
Other nicknames for Italy include: the Italian peninsula (Penisola italiana), the Apennine Peninsula (Penisola appenninica), the Beautiful Country (Belpaese)
The Land of Honey
Malta has been involved in producing honey since time immemorial: indeed, the word Malta itself comes from the Greek word for the Land of Honey, “melitos“, suggesting local production of the sweet stuff dates back milennia. The Romans, too, considered honey one of Malta’s chief products, naming the place “Melita“, similar to their word for honey, “melitai“. The climate of Malta – and its mild winters – make the island the bees knees for producing the stuff: Malta and Gozo house around 2,200 colonies and 220 beekeepers. Maltese honey is very popular with tourists because of its unique taste; the place even has its own subspecies, the Maltese honey bee.
I hope you’ve all been concentrating! If so, you’ll surely remember the meaning of the term ‘pars pro toto’. Anyone? No conferring! (Psst: if you’ve forgotten, you can cheat by taking another look at the section above on Holland … sorry, the Netherlands). Got it? Then you will know exactly how to react when I tell you that the Czech Republic is sometimes referred to as Bohemia: actually the westernmost and largest historical region of the Czech lands; the others being Moravia and Czech Silesia, whose denizens are apt to get annoyed at the use of the term to denote the whole country. Forget Freddie Mercury’s Rhapsody: the term Bohemia actually came from the Romans, who were competing for dominance in northern Italy in the 2nd century BC with various peoples including the Boii. The defeated tribe retreated north across the Alps to a region that Roman authors soon came to call Boiohaemum.
The Heart of Europe
Time for an experiment: open a map of Europe, close your eyes, and put your finger right in the middle. Where is it? Yes, there you are: Slovakia! There are actually many controversies over the location of the geographical centre of Europe, whose definition of course depends on exactly where you think “Europe” starts and ends – a topic which on its own generates many passionate if not furious contributions to the Europe IsNotDead mailbag. Many countries or cities claim to be the centre of Europe – and who wouldn’t want such an alluring label? Depending on how you measure it, you might put the centre in Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia or even Belarus; with more than 1,000 kilometres separating the different contenders for the crown, finding the cartographical “centre of Europe” is like finding a compass needle in a haystack. That’s why the smart Slovakians avoided controversy and styled themselves The Heart of Europe: while the heart is not exactly in the centre of the human body, we certainly couldn’t do without it!
Other nicknames for Slovakia include: The Tatra Tiger (Tatranský Tiger)
The Land of Fields
Many ancient European tribes, and subsequently countries, took their names from the nature of the land they inhabited. Poland, “The Land of Fields“, is a very good example. The ancient tribes of Polans (‘those living in the fields’), Polanies, or Polonians, eventually managed to unite territories to establish the first Polish dynasty, the Piast. The word survives as dialect: when leaving a building, people living in the southern and eastern parts of Poland still say they are going “na pole” (‘to the field’). Why this focus on fields, I hear you cry? Simple: farming has always been an integral part of Poland’s economy. Even today, the country enjoys expansive meadows and pastures with soil and climatic conditions favourable for many different crops.
Other nicknames for Poland include: The Land of Amber
The Land Of Storks
If one day, your child asks you where babies come from: use the usual European trick and say the stork brought them. If that doesn’t convince – maybe your kid is some kind of nerdy child prodigy – just tell them they come from Lithuania. By the time they’re old enough to learn how to Google where that is, they’ll have figured out the real answer anyway. Besides, there’s more than a grain of truth to that story: because, with the highest nesting density in the world, Lithuania is a significant habitat for white storks. Not only is the creature the source of the country’s nickname, it is also the national bird, and a symbol of good luck – Lithuanians still believe that storks bring harmony to the families on whose property they nest. To show their gratitude to this magical bird, the population celebrates Stork Day: on 25 March, they give gifts to children, and catch snakes to bury them under the doorstep (one of the weirdest tradition we’ve heard so far); and, who knows, if the Stork Day party goes really well, they might even arrange for another to visit in 9 months’ time….
Other nicknames for Lithuania include: The Baltic Tiger (together with Latvia and Estonia)
The Land of Blue Lakes
Riga, the fairy-tale capital city, was once nicknamed the “Paris of the East”, but the country as a whole is often known as the ‘Land of Blue lakes‘. The largest lakes in Latvia are in the Latgale region. This region is home to the lakes Lubans (82.1 km2), Raznas, near Rezekne, and Dridzis, the deepest in the Baltics. A unique protected natural area is Ezezers with thirty-six islands and Velnezers (the Devil’s lake), famous for its mysterious colours; many legends are told of its magical waters.
Other nicknames for Latvia include: Land Of The Letts, The Baltic Tiger (together with Lithuania and Estonia)
None of that new-fangled trendiness in Estonia: the country’s nickname dates back as far as 1215! By the 12th century, the peoples inhabiting Estonia formed a pagan wedge between increasingly powerful rival Christian states. Archbishop Hartwig II of Bremen, unhappy with this unchristian state of affairs, toured the Empire to lobby for a Baltic Crusade. His campaign succeeded, when a Papal Bull declared that fighting against the Baltic heathens would get you as many Heaven Points as the mission to the Holy Land – even if the weather wasn’t as nice. After the conquest, Pope Innocent III dedicated Estonia to the Virgin Mary to popularise recruitment to his army and the name ‘Mary’s Land‘ has survived up to modern times. This is noticeable in one of the names given to the country at the time, ‘Terra Mariana’ or ‘Maarjamaa’ in Estonian, which means ‘Land of Mary’.
Other nicknames for Estonia include: e-Stonia, The Baltic Tiger (together with Lithuania and Latvia)
The name Belarus derives from the term White Russia, which first appeared in German medieval literature. Belo, the Russian word for ‘White’, is the likely source of the country’s name, rather than the Latin bella, beautiful. Historically, the country was referred to in English as White Russia, but in fact a better translation would be White Ruthenia, referring to the area of Eastern Europe populated by Slavic people and the various states that occupied it. Yet another theory is that the name may have had its origins in the efforts made by Russia’s tsars to distinguish themselves from their predecessors in Rome and Byzantium. Muscovite rulers, including the Tsar, wore white robes to distinguish themselves from the purple of the Roman rulers and the red of the Byzantines. Either way, the nickname suggests this country has more in common with far-flung Albion than you might think!
Other nicknames for Belarus include: Ruthenia, The Blue-Eyed Country, Russia Alba
The Bread Basket of Europe
Among all the associations foreigners have with Ukraine, the oldest is as ‘The Bread Basket of Europe‘. And it’s still valid today. It earned the nickname because of the country’s fertile black soil, from which sprouted vast fields of wheat, barley, rye, oats, sunflower, beets and other grain and oil crops. Today, still, nearly one out of four workers in Ukraine is employed in agriculture or forestry. In the past, however, this title was to cause the country immense hardship when Stalin decided the country should be responsible for feeding the whole Soviet Union. Collectivisation and unachievable grain targets were the main causes of the Great Famine, otherwise known as Holodomor, that in 1932 and 1933 killed as many as 7.5 million Ukrainians.
Other nicknames for Ukraine include: The Cradle of Slavic Civilisation
The Land Of Count Dracula
It’ll come as a surprise to no-one that Romania is ‘The Land of Dracula‘: not least as it is the location for Irish writer Bram Stoker’s well-known 1897 novel. But did you know that Count Dracula was actually inspired by one of the best-known figures of Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of Walachia at various times from 1456-1462? This uncouth gentleman had the most unfortunate habit of impaling his enemies; he also impaled monks on sticks to help them to go to heaven; the road to hell, as they say, is paved with good intentions. Far from tugging at the heartstrings of any passing animal-lovers, any donkeys braying after the death of their masters would also get the impaling treatment. While stories of Vlad’s cruelty are to be treated with caution – his brutal acts were very probably made up, or at least exaggerated, by the Saxons – the invention of printing certainly helped them to spread, making the popular tales of this (allegedly) dastardly tyrant one of the first bestsellers in Europe…
Other nicknames for Romania include: Transylvania, The Land Beyond the Forest
You must have heard the name Bessarabia at least once; but can you locate it on a map? If not, don’t worry, you’re in good company. The term used to denote a region in Eastern Europe, covering part of modern-day Moldova, with a small bit of Ukraine. According to the traditional interpretation, it derives from the Wallachian Basarab dynasty, who allegedly ruled over the southern part of the area in the 14th century. The region has been invaded and occupied by many different powers: the Ottomans, the Russians, the Romanians, the Soviet Union and then Romania again. With the region itself so long downtrodden, the name itself sank largely into disuse – surviving today as an alternative name for modern-day Moldova. Because of its location between Ukraine and Romania and between Poland and the Balkans, Bessarabia has always served as a route between the west and the east.
The Land of Magyars
Hungarians, who know their country as Magyarország, ‘The Land of Magyars‘, are unique among the nations of Europe in that they speak a language that is not related to any other major European language – except Finnish, as you may know. The word ‘Magyar‘ itself possibly derived from the name of the most prominent and yet mysterious Hungarian tribe, the Megyer. It is very possible that the proto-Magyars wandered not a thousand miles but ten times that distance over the course of many centuries, before arriving in their present, highly congenial homeland. Although some historians depict the Magyars as a people of European origin, the greater part of the evidence points to Asia.
Other nicknames for Hungary include: The Heart of Europe, The Pearl of Danube, The Land of Waters, The Capital of Spas and Thermal Baths
The Sunny Side of the Alps
How dare they! How dare they insinuate that Austria, Germany and even the South of France are on ‘The opposite Rainy Side of the Alps’? In fact, as anyone who’s been to Germany on a good day can testify, it’s been sunny… at least once. More seriously, it is true that Slovenia, with its combination of Alpine beauty, majestic valleys and turquoise lakes purified by their limestone surroundings, seems at a first glance to deserve such a rewarding nickname. But just to be sure, let’s check at climatedata.eu and make some calculations… So, it seems that Slovenia is doing fine with on average 1700 hours sunshine per year. Not bad, I’ll grant. But… you can also count on being caught by rain on average 115 days in a year. While that figure includes sprinkles as well as downpours, it’s hardly favourable when compared to sunny Madrid and its average of 32 rainy days …
Other nicknames for Slovenia include: Europe in Miniature, The Green Piece of Europe
Every nation loves its own country and calls it the most beautiful. Croatians, however, actually call their state ‘Our Beautiful‘ (“Lijepa naša“), which is also the title of their national anthem. As such, the lyrics of the anthem are nothing to shout (or sing) about: “Our beautiful homeland, O so fearless and gracious. Our fathers’ ancient glory, May you be blessed forever“. But the Croatian people identify with them deeply. The lyrics were printed for the first time as “Croatian Homeland” in the ‘Danica’ newspaper in 1835. But the song became the official anthem of Croatia only when the Constitution was amended in February 1972. Sadly, though we have the words, we’ll never know exactly what the good folk of Zagreb were singing back then: the original form of the melody remains unknown to this day.
Serbia has long had the name ‘Rascia‘, with sources dating back to the late 12th century. Rascia is an exonym – meaning that the term was used only by non-Serbians, specifically those in Western Europe. It was derived from the town of Ras, a royal estate, and seat of one of the eparchies (provinces) of the Orthodox Church. The first attestation is in a charter from Kotor dated to 1186, in which Stefan Nemanja, the Grand Prince (1166–1196), is mentioned as “župan of Rascia“. It was one of the common names for Serbia in western sources, used by the Papacy, the Germans, the Italians and the French, but never by the Byzantine Empire itself. The term is often used in modern historiography to refer to the medieval “Serbian hinterland”, that is, the inland territories rather than the maritime principalities on the Adriatic.
Other nicknames for Serbia include: Rašk, Servia, The Balkan Tiger
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The Heart Shaped Land
Bosnia and Herzegovina likes to advertise itself as ‘The Heart Shaped Land’. Squint a bit at the map and maybe you’ll find that to be literally true; we couldn’t see it, but maybe we lack the imagination. But the reason for the name is perhaps more metaphorical: it’s a country you’re very likely to fall in love with. The Ministry for Tourism provides a dramatic description of the country: “it is here that eastern and western civilisations met, sometimes clashed, but more often enriched and reinforced each other throughout its long and fascinating history”. In any case, Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the last undiscovered areas of the Southern Alps and, whatever shape it’s really in, we strongly recommend you discover its wide and untouched expanses of wilderness for yourself; it’s an ideal holiday destination for nature lovers and adventurers.
The Black Mountain
This one comes easy! With some basic knowledge of Latin, you could even have made it yourself… Montenegro… Monte-negro… Mountain Black… Black Mountain! Although the origin of the name Montenegro is still debated among historians, it can be traced as far back as the early 1200s, when “Crna Gora” – which in Serbo-Croatian meant, yup, you guessed it, ‘Black Mountain’ – was used in the charter of Vranjina Monastery to denote the highlands of Mount Lovćen, a mountain with dense pine forests in the southwest of the country. That the nation’s name today is borrowed from the Italian “Montenegro” rather than the Serbo-Croatian “Crna Gora” reflects Venice’s dominance over the Balkans during the Middle Ages. Now, you know why a Balkan country five time smaller than Ireland ended up with such a mysterious and monumental name!
Other nicknames for Montenegro include: Duklja, Zeta (medieval times)
The Land of Freedom
Kosovo is a partially recognised state in southeastern Europe that declared its independence from Serbia in February 2008. While Serbia recognises the Republic’s governance of the territory, it still continues to claim Kosovo and Metohija as one of its own autonomous provinces. As such, it is considered by many countries as a disputed territory. The Constitution of Kosovo specifies that the country is a secular state and neutral in matters of religious belief. Freedom of belief, conscience and religion is guaranteed with religious autonomy ensured and protected. The search for independence and the protection of individual rights: all these explain maybe why people from Kosovo are so eager to call their country ‘The Land of Freedom‘.
Other nicknames for Kosovo include: The Land of Pears, Dardania (only in Albanian)
The Land of the Eagles
Many legends and tales have tried to explain the origin of the nickname ‘The Land of the Eagles‘, and how the bird of prey came to be so closely associated with the country. The eagle is one of Albania’s most important symbols, featuring on the national flag, on postcards, on traditional costumes and handicrafts, and in the country’s literature and history… No kidding, the people of Albania seem weirdly devoted to the creature. So where does this all come from? One famous Albanian folk story, the Tale of the Eagle, tells of a young boy interacting with the bird. Amazed by this valiant hunter’s deeds, the people of the land elected him king and called him Shqipëtar, which is to say Son of the Eagle (shqipe or shqiponjë is Albanian for eagle); his kingdom became known as “Shqipëria” or ‘Land of the Eagles’.
The Land of Roses
If you’ve been to Bulgaria, you’ll probably have heard that this beautiful country is also called ‘The Land of Roses‘. Astonishingly, Bulgaria is world leader in the production of rose oil, in particular from the rare hybrid Rosa Damascena, produced in what is known as the “Valley of Roses”. The oil extracted from Rosa Damascena is used as a base element in cosmetics and scents all over the world, since as long ago as the Middle Ages! But be warned, if you want to bring some back as a souvenir, bear in mind it is also a highly pricey product, mainly used for high-end perfumes. If you visit the Balkans in the end of May and the beginning of June you should definitely take part in the old Bulgarian tradition of picking roses!
Other nicknames for Bulgaria include: The Land of the Thracians, The Land of Lions
The Land Of the Sun
Macedonians are good humoured: they love to say that “only the sun is older than Macedonia“! The nickname ‘The Land of the Sun‘ does not refer to the country’s weather – though sunshine is always welcome – but rather to the stylised yellow symbol featured on their flag. This eight-rayed sun represents “the new sun of Liberty” mentioned in the national anthem. It was adopted in 1995 after the previous flag wound up their Greek neighbours, inflaming a long-running controversy regarding the new country’s relationship to the ancient kingdom, and to the present-day region of Greece, both known by the same name. The Macedonian Sun is undoubtedly the oldest symbol in the country that still survives as cultural symbol of the Macedonians.
Other nicknames for Macedonia include: The Land Of Alexander The Great, The Land of Kings, The Land of God
Is it better to name a country like the locals do, or using the nomenclature of the imperial invaders? Sadly, in the case of Greece, we’ve taken the second approach. In English the country’s name is derived from the Latin word Graecia (literally meaning ‘the land of the Greeks’) and not Hellas, as the Greeks call themselves. Eheu! But it’s easy to see why: ancient Romans not only took control of Greece in 146 BC, and subsequently most of Europe’s territory, but their Latin tongues also invaded many European languages; thus, ‘Greece‘ generally got favoured over ‘Hellas‘. There are still some visible traces of this old name in our modern vocabulary, in particular when we use Hellenic as a synonym for Greek in newspapers and elsewhere. But to be frank, Hellas has a strong claim to being more than a mere nickname…
Other nicknames for Greece include: The Birthplace Of Democracy
The Island of Love
We are slowly coming to an end with this list of European country’s nicknames. But we’ve saved the best till (almost) last! Who wouldn’t like his or her country to be called ‘The Island of Love‘ or, alternatively ‘The Island of Aphrodite‘? Such romanticism is far more appealing than describing mere colours, shapes or fashion accessories! As you may guess, Cyprus owes this salacious title to Greek mythology. According to legend, Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility, was born on its shores. But she wasn’t brought by a stork, Lithuanian or otherwise: she emerged from the gentle jade-colored sea foam at Petra tou Romiou, a boulder that juts up from the south coast of Cyprus as majestically today as it did then. The name Aphrodite, in fact, means “foam born”. She was the most ancient goddess in the Olympian pantheon.
Other nicknames for Cyprus include: The Island of Aphrodite (Το νησί της Αφροδίτης)
What is Anatolia, exactly? It is the peninsular region between the Black Sea in the north and Mediterranean Sea in the south. It is entirely located in modern-day Turkey but does not cover its entire territory. The word, itself, comes from Greek Anatolḗ which means simply ‘east’, or the place of sunrise. The oldest known reference to Anatolia appears on Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets from the period of the Akkadian Empire (2350–2150 BC). The Turkification of Anatolia began under the Seljuk Empire in the late 11th century and continued under the Ottomans between the early 14th and early 20th centuries. Since the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, Anatolia has been within Turkey, its inhabitants being mainly Turks and Kurds.
Other nicknames for Turkey include: Asia Minor, Anatolian peninsula, Anatolian plateau
Special Thanks to Jack Schickler for his great advice.
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