Exactly 520 years ago this Friday (well, except for the 11 days we lost in 1752 when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar), Christopher Columbus bumped into some islands unknown to Europeans, whipped out his cellphone and told the folks back home he hadn’t really been looking for another route to Asia after all and, oh, by the way, “Dibs!”
Despite his accidental find, his name was not slapped on it. A minor navigator, Amerigo Vespucci, grabbed that honor.
Oh, we have an abundance of Columbias and Columbuses, of course, and Colombia, and terms such as pre-Columbian art.
We have cannibals, so named because Columbus thought the Carib natives were subjects of the Great Khan of the Mongol empire.
He gave us Honduras, named for “the depths” of its coastal waters, says the Online Etymology Dictionary. Columbus hung his shingle on Hispaniola (“the Spanish island”), found the Bahamas (perhaps Spanish for “low sea”) and sighted an island he termed Antigua (“ancient” and short for Santa Maria la Antigua, or Old St. Mary’s church in Spain).
He found Jamaica and Grenada, and at another island he called a large bay Puerto Rico because it was a “rich port.” The island eventually took on the name of the bay.
His influence flows on. Columbus coined “canoe” after the dugouts he found in Haiti, basing it on a native word. The electrical term “coulomb” comes to us from French chemist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, the last part of which is a French form of you-know-who.
Despite all that and more, it was Amerigo Vespucci who wrote about the New World, so a geographer took the easy way out and wrote “America” on the maps.
Checking out those maps, people from all points settled in the New World, and pretty soon those upstart Americans shook off the chains of someone else’s commerce and declared themselves open for business. The rest, as they say, is U.S. history class.
(If they had named America anything else, it wouldn’t begin and end with the same letter like all the great land masses – Asia, Europe, Africa, Antarctica, Australia – so perhaps we can give Vespucci a break.)
Did Columbus discover America? Well, no, the Americans already had done that thousands of years earlier, along with the Vikings and others.
Did Columbus prove the world is round? No, by that same year, 1492, a geographer in Germany had devised the first globe of Earth, so suffice it to say that, unless that globe was flatter than a flitter, people had known for a long time that the world was round.
Still, his serendipitous discovery opened up a big part of the planet to exploration, plunder and settlement, so it is fitting that we should set aside a day to honor him.