Capital City Origins ~ Europe Part 1
Last updated: Sunday December 19th, 2021
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I was wondering to myself the other day, (I often do this during the long, lonely hours on the road), how did London get its name, and what about Dublin, or Reykjavik, or Kuala Lumpur, or...well you get the idea.
So I thought I'd do a little research and find out some of the origins of some cities, and then like a lightbulb going on, I thought I'd make a series of blogs covering every capital city. Every single one. Thats 196 cities to start with.
I may decide then to extend the blogs to other large cities around the world. Such as Barcelona, or Chicago, or Sydney, or .....I'm off again, sorry!
Anyways, heres the first batch and blog covering some of the northern part of Europe starting with London, for no other reason than it is the capital city of the country that I call home. (Although I must admit, I hate driving around London, too busy and hectic, but I digress...) Onto the blog........
London. United Kingdom.
Many people think that the name London is just a shortened version of Londinium, the Roman name for the city, however this was just a Latinised version. London was London before the Romans, and many scholars now think the name derives from the ancient Celtic language.
Some say that it translates as "River too wide to ford" but in reality it is more likely to mean "Place that floods". This is certainly a place that can flood evidenced by the need to build the Thames Flood Barrier.
LONDON = PLACE THAT FLOODS
Dublin has two names. It is also known in the modern Irish language as Baile Atha Cliath.
Firstly, Dublin. The early Irish word Dubhlind can be split into Dubh meaning Black and Lind meaning Pool. There is evidence of a dark tidal pool around the area of the castle, one of the earliest places of habitation.
Secondly, Baile Atha Cliath. This means "Town of the hurdled ford" and refers to a crossing of the River Liffey near to an early Christian monastry of the same name.
DUBLIN = BLACK TIDAL POOL
The name Reykjavik was originally spelt slightly differently as Reykjarvik, the extra R being dropped around 1800. The name loosely translates as Smoke Cove. Some English language tourist literature actually calls the city Smoky Bay or Bay of Smoke.
The smoke this refers to is actually the steam from the nearby hot springs that everyone associates with Iceland. It is thought that early settlers didn't distinguish from smoke or steam in their language as we do nowadays.
REYKJAVIK = SMOKE COVE
There is much debate about the origins of the name of Norway's capital city. It was once assumed that it meant "Mouth of the River Lo" however no evidence has been found of a river of that name and in Norwegian the name would have been Loaros anyway.
The area of Oslo was originally called Christiana following a fire in 1624 and Oslo was a suburb. Eventually the city grew and in 1925 Oslo became the name of the whole city. The suburb was renamed Gamlebyen which means "Old Town".
It is agreed however that the name is Old Norse and was probably the name of a nearby farm. Modern linguists have two theories to the meaning of the name. "Meadow at the foot of a hill" or "Meadow consecrated by the Gods" so in conclusion......
OSLO = MEADOW (at the foot of a hill OR consecrated by the Gods)
Inhabited since around 8000BC and appearing in Norse Sagas as Agnafit, this name derives from the legendary Swedish king, Agne.
The earliest mention of Stockholm is in 1252.
The first part of the name, Stock, means "log" in Swedish although it is thought to come from the old German word for "fortification" (think of the word Stockade for example).
The second part, holm, means islet or small island, and is thought to refer to the small island at the very centre of the city. (there are many islands that end in ~holm)
STOCKHOLM = FORTIFIED ISLAND
The name Helsinki is in itself a derivation from the Swedish language. Prior to 1819 the city was called Helsing or sometimes Helsinge. In Swedish the city is known as Helsingfors.
So the name is thought by most scholars to have originated in the Swedish language and is said to come from the Swedish word for "neck" (meaning the narrowest part of a river or "rapids"). The River Vantaa was originally called the Helsinge River. The mouth of the River Vantaa has rapids that are known in Finnish as Vanhankaupunginkoski which translates as "rapids at the mouth of the river".
HELSINKI = RAPIDS ON THE HELSINGE RIVER
Moscow is actually the western alphabet translation of the Russian name, Moskva, and this is in fact the name of the river that passes through Moscow. The city is named after the river. But where did the river get it's name and what does it mean ?
The pre-Slavic tribes that inhabited the area originally called it Mustojoki or Black River. Although the most widely accepted meaning is "wet" or "wetland" refering to a marshland river. In fact in several languages the word translates as either "pool", "to wash", "to drown" or "to immerse". All terms associated with wetlands and activities involved near them.
MOSCOW = RIVER THROUGH MARSHLAND
Besides being one of those annoying names on Jetpunk that leaves a stranded letter in the answer box, Tallinn is a relatively new name for this city. Originating in 1918 when Estonia became independant. Previous names from various sources are Kolyvan, Quwri, Lindanisa, and Rafala.
However our quest is the derivation of current capital city names, so back to Tallinn. Tallinn is Estonian and is known to derive from Taani-lina or Danish Town due to the castle built by Danes. Lina means castle or fortress.
TALLINN = DANISH FORTRESS
There are several theories regarding the origin of the name Riga. One theory is that it is derived from the word ringa, Livonian for "loop in a river" refering to Riga's ancient natural harbour. Another theory is that it comes from the German name for the River Ridzene, Riege. A further story is that a bishop claimed it came from the Latin rigata meaning "irrigated" symbolising "the irrigation of dry Pagan souls to Christianity"
However the most accepted theory is that the name comes from the already established trading post and the Rias or buildings surrounding the harbour. These buildings were warehouses or granaries. The word "ria" is "rija" in Latvian but in German the j is hardened to sound like a g. So Ria becomes Rija which then becomes Riga.
RIGA = GRANARY OR WAREHOUSE
Although Vilnius has many different spellings in different languages most are similar. Vilna, Wilna, Vilno, and Vilne are the most common.
The city itself is named after the Vilnia river. According to legend Grand Duke Gediminas built the city along the river by will of the Gods.
The river from which it takes it's name, Vilnia, means "ripple", presumably symbolising the gentle nature of it's flow.
VILNIUS = TOWN ON THE RIPPLING RIVER
The origin of the name Minsk is unknown but is thought to have derived from old Slavic word for river, Men. Previously known as Mensk this would seem possible. Some Belarussians call the city Miensk which does add to the theory.
However the meaning of the river name is unknown. It could refer to an owner of the land or local preacher or tribal leader, no- one knows.
So the best I can come up with in this case is.....
MINSK = TOWN ON THE RIVER
This one is a bit of a mystery. No-one has really determined the origin of the name. In Polish the city is spelt Warszawa, one theory is that it means "belonging to Warsz" however the normal ending would be ~ow, ~owo or ~ew.
In folklore Warsaw is said to have been an amalgamation of Wars and Sawa. Sawa was a mermaid living on the banks of the Vistula river that fell in love with a fisherman called Wars. In actual fact Wars was a 13th century nobleman.
I think that although the I want the mermaid theory to be right it is most probably the boring origin.
WARSAW = BELONGING TO WARSZ
"Wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen" as the song goes, although in Danish it is spelt Kobenhavn. This name in itself has also derived from the Old Norse name of Kaupmannahofn, Old Norse being the language from which danish evolved.
The city's name reflects it's history as a trading port and its literal meaning in English would be "Chapman's Haven" however the best translation would be....
COPENHAGEN = MERCHANT'S HARBOUR
Another uncertain origin, Berlin possibly traces its roots from the slavic language, Old Polabian. In this language berl means "swamp", and certainly the city lies on the River Spree which flows into a tributary of the Elbe river. There are also many lakes and Berlin lies in the European Plain. So this would make sense.
However, folklore connects the city name with the German word for bear, and there is a bear in the city's coat of arms. certainly there would have been bears in the wild around that area when Berlin was founded.
BERLIN = SWAMP or PLACE OF BEARS. (I'll let you decide that one, my guess would be swampland)
The "Venice of the North" as Amsterdam is colloquially known, has a quite simple name.
Local peatland called Amestelle, meaning "watery area", that was dammed to create land reclamation made the area around the Amstel river more attractive for development.
An early settlement was subsequently known as Amestelledamme which over time became shortened, first to Aemsterdam and eventually to Amsterdam.
AMSTERDAM = DAM ON THE WATERY AREA
So there you have it. The first 15 capital cities of Europe "done and dusted" . Only 30 more to do and then move on to either Africa or Asia, I haven't decided yet. There will be two more Europe blogs with another 15 capitals in each. Part 2 will carry on down to Iberia and the rest of Western Europe whereas Part 3 will concentrate on eastern Europe and the Balkans.
As some of you may remember the challenge I did in 2020 (On This day), you know I will be determined to complete this series of blogs. hopefully they will entertain and inform.
So for now, in the words of Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, ...So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, Goodbye.
Part 1 = Brasília, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Montevideo, Washington (BONUS: New York), Mexico City.
Part 2 = Tokyo, Beijing, New Delhi (BONUS: Mumbai/Bombay), Riyadh, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv (what did I just started... 😅)
Idk if it was understandable, but... anyway. Amazing blog, as always!
South-East Asian starter pack: Jakarta, Manila, Bangkok, Napyidaw (BONUS: Yangon/Rangoon), Hanoi (BONUS: Ho Chi Minh City), Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore.