Where did countries get their name from?

We have previously talked about the origin of names and nicknames in our blog. However, we were curious about the names of countries. Who gave the name to Zambia, Iraq or Paraguay? We are taking a deep dive!

Zambia and Zimbabwe

Like many other names, it comes from the geographical accidents in the area. In this case, Zambia means “Land of the Zambezi,” which is a river that flows through the east and provides a border with Zimbabwe. 

What is more surprising is that the name the country had prior to the independence from British rule in 1964 was Northern Rhodesia, or “Land of Rhodes.” It was named after Cecil Rhodes, the minister and businessman who founded the colony with his role in the British South Africa Company.

Southern Rhodesia changed back to Zimbabwe, “House of Stones,” Dzimba-dze-mabwe in the local Shona language. The name is related to the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe. It is believed it was used as a palace for a monarch, and one of its more prominent features is its high walls (reaching eleven meters high), made of dry stone.


The Arabic name al-ʿIrāq has been in use since before the 6th century AC. However, the origin is not very clear and there are multiple theories.

The first one is that the name dates back to the Sumerian city of Uruk, which means “city” in Sumerian.This is considered one of the two main probable etymologies for the name.

Another possible origin is from the Middle Persian word erāq or Erak, which means “lowlands.” There is an Aramaic incantation bowl found in Nippur which has the word ’yrg (Iraq) excavated in it, next to myšyn (Mesene) and that suggests that it was the region of Lower Mesopotamia. 

Although these theories are more plausible, Arabic folk etymology suggests that the name comes from the meaning “deeply rooted, well-watered; fertile,” but it has not been proven.


The precise origin of the word “Paraguay” is still unclear, but it has been said that it comes from the river of the same name.

One of the most commonly accepted explanations for the name is the meaning of “water of the Payagua”. The Payagua were a native tribe of the Guaycuru peoples in the Gran Chaco region, in South America.

Another possibility is linked to the Guarani words para, which means “river” and guai (“crown”). The final meaning would be “crowned river,” referring back to the river of the same name.

A third possible origin comes from para (“river”), gua (“from”), y (“water”), which means “water that comes from the river”, referring to a bog in the north, which is located in Brazil nowadays.

What other countries do you want us to talk about? Let us know in the comments.

Click here for more origins of words.

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