Kiribati, Tonga, Vanuatu, Tuvalu… Have you ever wondered how the islands of the Pacific got their names? And what do those names actually mean? Could Tokelau be known as Fiji, Niue as Palau, and Guam as Papua New Guinea? Shakespeare told us that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Would it, really? To answer these questions, I decided to do some research.
The word “Polynesia” comes from Greek and means “many islands” (“poly” = “many” + “nēsos” = “island”). French Polynesia, as the name of the “country”, was coined in 1957; 11 years after the islands had received the status of an overseas territory.
The Cook Islands
The Cook Islands were named after British explorer, Captain James Cook. The name was invented by Admiral Adam Johann von Krusenstern, who wanted to honor the great navigator.
“Niue” translates as “behold the coconut” and derives from the words “niu” (coconut) and “e” (here). In the past the island was known as “Savage Island”, a name given to it by Captain James Cook.
The word “Tonga” means “south” in numerous Polynesian languages. The country, which was once called “The Friendly Islands”, bears this name as it is the southernmost group of islands in central Polynesia.
The origin of the name “Samoa” is uncertain. George Turner, the author of “Samoa, a Hundred Years Ago and Long Before”, gives several explanations, all of which are connected with the words “moa” (“chicken”, but also a family and given name) and “sā” (“holy”, “tabū”, “sacred”) as well as the local legends. In the past Samoa was known to the Western world as “The Navigator Islands”.
The name Tokelau is a Polynesian word meaning “north wind”. Before the country adopted this name, it had been known as “The Union Islands”.
Wallis and Futuna
The island of Uvea takes its European name, Wallis, from its 18th-century British discoverer, Captain Samuel Wallis. Futuna, on the other hand, is derived from the word “futu”, which is the name of the fish-poison tree found on the island.
Formerly called the Ellice Islands (after Edward Ellice, British merchant and politician), the word “Tuvalu” means “eight standing together”. The name refers to the eight populated atolls of the country.
It is said that the 50th state’s name translates to “the place of the Gods”. The word “Hawai’i” is very similar to Proto-Polynesian “hawaiki”, which means “homeland”.
The name “Kiribati” derives from the local pronunciation of the English word “Gilberts” (or “The Gilbert Islands”), which was the colonial name of the archipelago given to it by French sailors, who called the islands “Îles Gilbert” after British mariner Thomas Gilbert.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands
The country got its current name from British explorer, Captain John Marshall. The islands were historically known as “jolet jen Anij” (Gifts from God).
The origins of the name “Nauru” are rather obscure, but the word is thought to have come from the local term “anáoero”, which means “I go to the beach”.
The Federated States of Micronesia
“Micronesia”, meaning “small islands”, has its roots in two Greek words: “mikrós” (“small”) and “nēsos” (“island”). The country is made up of four states, hence “the federated states” in its name.
The name of the island comes from the Chamorro word “guahan”, which is said to mean “we have”.
The name “Palau” quite possibly derives from the Palauan word “beluu” (“country”, “territory”, “place”, “village”, “land”).
The country took its name from its largest island, Viti Levu. As the legend has it, it is known as “Fiji” due to communication error: when Captain James Cook asked Tongans about their neighbours, they pronounced “Viti” as “Fisi”, which was then anglicized as “Feejee” by the British explorer.
“New Caledonia” was the name given to the island by Captain James Cook, because it reminded him of Scotland (“Caledonia” in Latin).
Vanuatu’s name is derived from the words “vanua” (“land” or “home”) and “tu” (“stand”). The country was previously known as the “New Hebrides”, a name given to it by Captain James Cook in honor of the Scottish archipelago.
The country was named by Spanish navigator, Álvaro de Mendaña. Because he believed that the islands contained gold, he gave them the name of Solomon’s Islands, after the King Solomon’s mines.
Papua New Guinea
Spanish explorer, Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, coined the name “New Guinea” when he noticed the resemblance of the local people to the inhabitants of the African Guinea coast. The word “Papua” is of uncertain origin.