Each July 4, as we celebrate the origins of America, we look back ritually at what happened in 1776: the war, the politics, the principles that defined our nation. But what about the other thing that defines America: the name itself? Its story is far older and far less often told, and still offers some revealing surprises. If you’re like most people, you’ll dimly recall from your school days that the name America has something to do with Amerigo Vespucci, a merchant and explorer from Florence. You may also recall feeling that this is more than a little odd — that if any European earned the “right” to have his name attached to the New World, surely it should have been Christopher Columbus, who crossed the Atlantic years before Vespucci did.
But Vespucci, it turns out, had no direct role in the naming of America. He probably died without ever having seen or heard the name. A closer look at how the name was coined and first put on a map, in 1507, suggests that, in fact, the person responsible was a figure almost nobody’s heard of: a young Alsatian proofreader named Matthias Ringmann. How did a minor scholar working in the landlocked mountains of eastern France manage to beat all explorers to the punch and give the New World its name? The answer is more than just an obscure bit of history, because Ringmann deliberately invested the name America with ideas that still make up important parts of our national psyche: powerful notions of westward expansion, self-reinvention, and even manifest destiny.
And he did it, in part, as a high-minded joke.