4/28/11 - matthias ringmann gave america its name

In today's encore excerpt - in 1507, inspired by the still-fresh discovery of the New World, a small band of German humanist scholars in Saint-Die, Alsace, decided to make a new world map with accompanying commentary to be sold and studied throughout the cities and universities of Europe. They considered the New World to be the "fourth part" of the world, after Europe, Asia, and Africa, and from their distant outpost believed that Columbus had merely discovered islands west of the Canaries, and the true discoverer of this massive new continent was Amerigo Vespucci. So they coined a name for this fourth part of the world and printed it on their map—America:

"[Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemuller and their colleagues] decided to produce a geographical package consisting of three parts: a huge new map of the whole world, dedicated to Maximilian I (the Holy Roman Emperor and thus the symbolic head of the Germanic people), that would sum up ancient and modern geographical learning; a tiny version of that map, printed as a series of globe gores that could be pasted onto a small ball, creating the world's first mass-produced globe; and a sort of users' guide to those two maps, titled Introduction to Cosmography. ... It was a profound moment in the history of cartography—and in the larger history of ideas. ...

"The bulk of the work—the design of the map and the globe, and the writing of the Introduction to Cosmography—fell to Waldseemuller and Ringmann. Ringmann took the lead in writing the book. Libraries today credit Waldseemuller as the author, but the book actually names no author, and Ringmann's fingerprints appear all over it. ... Ringmann the writer, Waldseemuller the mapmaker. ...

"Why dwell on this question of authorship? Because whoever wrote the Introduction to Cosmography almost certainly coined the name America (which would have been pronounced 'Amer-eeka'). Here, too, the balance tilts in Ringmann's favor. Consider the famous passage in which the author steps forward to explain and justify the use of the name.

" 'These parts have in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci (as will be heard in what follows). Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this [new part] from being called Amerigen—the land of Amerigo, as it were—or America, after its discoverer, Americus, a man of perceptive character.' ...

"This sounds a lot like Ringmann, who is known to have spent time mulling over the reasons that concepts and places so often had the names of women. 'Why are all the virtues, the intellectual qualities, and the sciences always symbolized as if they belonged to the feminine sex?' he would write in a 1511 essay on the Muses. 'Where does this custom spring from—a usage common not only to the pagan writers but also to the scholars of the church? It originated from the belief that knowledge is destined to be fertile of good works. ... Even the three parts of the old world received the name of women:' The naming-of-America passage reveals Ringmann's hand in other ways, too. In his poetry and prose Ringmann regularly amused himself by making up words, by punning in different languages, and by investing his writing with hidden meanings for his literary friends to find and savor. The passage is rich in just this sort of wordplay, much of which requires a familiarity with Greek, a language Waldseemuller didn't know.

"The key to the passage, almost always ignored or overlooked, is the curious name Amerigen—a coinage that involves just the kind of multifaceted, multilingual punning that Ringmann frequently indulged in. The word combines Amerigo with gen, a form of the Greek word for 'earth,' creating the meaning that the author goes on to propose—'the land of Amerigo.' But the word yields other meanings, too. Gen can also mean 'born' in Greek, and the word ameros can mean "new," making it possible to read Amerigen as not only 'land of Amerigo' but also 'born new'—a double entendre that would have delighted Ringmann, and one that very nicely complements the idea of fertility that he associated with female names. The name may also contain a play on meros, a Greek word that can sometimes be translated as 'place.' Here Amerigen becomes A-meri-gen, or 'No-place-land': not a bad way to describe a previously unnamed continent whose geography is still uncertain."


Toby Lester


The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name


Free Press a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2009 by Toby Lester


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