… or maybe ‘black paint’? Acouple of days ago, my sister told me she had a topic I could write about on afoe. It had occured to her that all continental names, except Europe, start with an ‘a’, and she wondered why that might be the case. A quick check at wikipedia revealed that her statement is only correct when using a (although perhaps still the most common?) five-continents classification system and when referring to ‘Oceania’ as ‘Australia’. Moreover, there are a number of naming schemes for continents, which, while always featuring a majority of continent-names starting with an ‘A’, also consist of continents beginning with other letters – eg North, and South A-merica.
Despite the wikipedia-induced realization that any continental naming-scheme conspiracy theory was stillborn, I became interested in the etymology of continents, Europe in particular, only remembering that ‘Europa’ was a Phoenician princess Zeus kidnapped by transforming himself into a bull. But it took only a modest amount of further googling to find out that the left-leaning German newspaper taz had also, quite recently, been interested in the subject.
Almost exactly two years ago, on December 7, 2002, they reprinted parts of the etymological findings of Adolf Josef Storfer, a widely forgotten linguist, who had researched the continental etymology (of the classic naming scheme) in the 1930s. I am rather unsure whether his research is cutting edge, but I wasn’t able to find anything more detailed, or anything that differed from what the taz had reproduced from his writing. On the other hand, I think it goes without saying that continental etymology is not really the most contested academic market… if anyone is aware of recent changes to the information below, please let me know.
Thus, without further ado, I have translated parts of Mr Storfer’s research [“Im Dickicht der Sprache” von Adolf Josef Storfer. Verlag Vorwerk 8, Berlin 2000 (Erstausgabe von 1937)] with respect to the origins of “Europe”, as reprinted in the taz article quoted above – and I hope I managed to get the more technical words right.
“About the name Europe one can assume with a reasonable probability that it has been coined in Asia. The Ionians of Asia Minor had to interpret the Aegean and Black Sea as a separation within the territories known to them, which probably caused a need for a common term for the countries situated on the other side of those seas. Therefore, it seems natural and self-evident to assume that they named these territories according to their relation to the course of the sun, and thus tried to construe ‘Europe’ as ‘occident’.
It is common [at least, it was apparently common, when Mr Storfer wrote this] to understand ‘Europe’ as a variation of ‘erebos’, a Greek borrowing from Phoenician-Hebrew meaning ‘the dark’, realm of the shadows, underworld. Others dirive ‘Europe’ directly from the Semitic ‘ereb’=’evening’, thereby assuming that the conceptualisation of ‘Europe’ has first occurred in Phoenicia. Still other etymologists suggest the Greek ‘Euros’, meaning ‘black tarnish’, ‘mouldiness’, ‘mould’, or ‘black paint.’
It has also been attempted to interpret ‘Europe’ as derived from the name of virgin ‘Europa’, the daughter of Phoenix or of Phoenician King Agenor, whom Zeus, in the shape of a bull, abducted to Crete. But the kidnapped ‘cowgirl’ [‘Stierbraut’ in the original] probably received her name after the land mass and thus because of it.
Solmsen believes the word ‘Europe’ means ‘wide face’ – from the Greek words ‘eurys’ and ‘ops.’ According to him, the expression was used to describe great plains in Böotia, but also as a term for Böotia, and it was the name of a Böotian earth goddess. The term denoting Böotia then became the name for middle-Greece and finally for all continental Greece. While the derivation of a name for a continent from a name for a plain is perfectly possible …, the simplicity of the derivation of ‘Europe’ from Semitic ‘ereb’ is striking.
Recently [seen from 1936], Hans Phillip objected to the interpretation of ‘Erope’ as ‘ereb’. For the Greeks, Europe had never been a country in the West, but a country in the North. According to Phillip, Europe was not immediately the name for an entire continent, but only used to denote the Northern frontiers of the Aagean and Northern Greece. Thus, following Herodotus VII,8, the Persian King wanted to ‘lead his army through Europe’ to Hellas in order to subdue the Greeks.”