The History of the Terms America and Columbia
While the term Columbia sometimes refers to the whole New World (all the Americas), historically the United States of America was referred to as Columbia.
Where Do the Terms Columbia and America Come From
The term Columbia refers to Christopher Columbus. Likewise, the term America refers to Amerigo Vespucci. Both men were early explorers of the New World.
Unlike Columbus, Amerigo documented his travels, and this inspired a cartographer who popularized the term America via his popular maps.
Subsequently, the term Americas has been in popular use since the early 1500s.
Meanwhile, although the term Columbia was sometimes unofficially used in this period, its use became more common in the 1700s when it was used as a reference to the United States specifically. This is especially true in poetry and music, where the three-syllable pronunciation of Co-lum-bia often works better than A-mer-i-ca.
Thus, Columbia can generally be considered a romantic name for the States that was popularized in the 1700s.
That, along with the fact that the U.S. national anthem used to unofficially be “Hail, Columbia” and the national icon used to be Lady Columbia, is why we have the District of Columbia (the national capital), the Columbia River, Columbia University, and more in the United States.
We explain the above in more detail below, but first our old unofficial de facto national anthem, “Hail, Columbia!”
Hail Columbia! with Lyrics; First American National Anthem – United States of America.
What Does America Refer to?
As noted above, the United States of America is named after one of after one of the discoverers of the New World, Amerigo Vespucci. The United States part refers to the Union of Confederate states in North America known as “the United States” (a federation of republican states and commonwealths under a central republican government located in North America).
TIP: To be clear, the term Americas actually refers to all of North and South America or the New World, while the term the United States of America refers to the USA specifically.
American History: The New World|Colonial History of the United States of America|Documentary. The New World, Columbia, United States, all these terms have origin stories and very specific connotations.
TIP: Some say “America was almost called Columbia.” While this is a much catchier factoid, it isn’t true. The term “Americas” has been in use essentially since their discovery and, although many great Americans have revered the concept of Columbia, there is no evidence the name was ever sincerely considered as an official name for the country.
American History : Colonial America Documentary.
What Region Does Columbia Refer to?
Columbia can refer to all the Americas (the whole New World), but in the 1730s the American Colonies began adopting the name Columbia specifically, and it became a symbol of liberty and pioneering spirit over time. Thus, references to Columbia post-1730 can hint toward specifically what is today the United States of America.
With that in mind, Colombia (with an “o,” AKA the country Colombia) has the same roots (so it can be difficult to tell which Columbia is being referred to without context).
Is Columbia the Same as Colombia? Colombia has the same origins Columbia, but it is not “exactly the same.” See Colombia vs Columbia: A nation scorned in spelling?
The Columbian Exchange: Crash Course World History #23.
FACT: The Columbian Exchange was the widespread transfer of animals, plants, culture, human populations, technology, and ideas between the New World and the Old World in the 15th and 16th centuries. The term, like its general usage, related to European colonization and trade after Christopher Columbus’s 1492 voyage. The trade between the Old and New World helped uplift both populations; notably the potato is not native to Europe and horses and pigs not native to the Americas.
Americans were sometimes referred to as Columbians: Although today the word Colombian conjures up images of South America, Columbian was once used to refer to a citizen of the United States.
FACT: Lady Liberty comes from Lady Columbia, the original personification of American liberty. This female national personification of the United States is comparable to the British Britannia, the Italian Italia Turrita, the ancient Roman Libertas, the French Marianne, and especially the Athenian Athena (see Civil religion). Lady Liberty replaced Lady Columbia as a national icon during WWI when Liberty Bonds were sold featuring the Statue of Liberty. Some entities, like Columbia pictures, still use the imagery of Lady Columbia. One could say, Lady Columbia, Lady Liberty, and all the other Ladies of Liberty are essentially the same figure “the Liberty Goddess.”
Why is Washington Named the District of Columbia?.
The Lady In The Columbia Pictures Logo. Columbia pictures, get it, they did.
FACT: The Knights of Columbus, a pro-immigrant political group, are one of many groups who saw Columbus and Columbia as a symbol of the principles of liberty on which The United States was founded. Tammany Hall, another political organization, is also known as New York City’s Columbian Order, they were the first to celebrate Columbus Day and even helped make it a national holiday. See another great article on facts about the origins of Columbus day and thus the origins of Columbia.
Why is it called America, not Columbia?
As alluded to above, the name America comes from a lesser-known explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Like Columbus, Vespucci traveled to the New World (first in 1499 and again in 1502). Unlike Columbus, Vespucci wrote about it and his accounts were widely read in Europe at the time, and it was this that led to the Americas being called the Americas and not the Columbia-us-s (or however one would say that).
In 1507 a German cartographer named Martin Waldseemüller was drawing a map of the world for his Universalis Cosmographia (Universal Cosmography), and he based his depiction of the New World on Vespucci’s published travelogues.
In general, all countries were seen as feminine, so Waldseemüller used a feminine Latinization of Amerigo in naming the new continents “America.” Cartographers tended to copy one another, so over time, Columbus was left off the map and the name stuck.
Today, an original of Waldseemüller’s map is permanently on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Read more from: Why is it called America, not Columbusia?
Mini Bio: Amerigo Vespucci. These aren’t the West Indies; these are the colonies of Amerigo, or are they of Columbia?
Where Does the Term “United States” Come From?
Although we don’t know for sure where the term United States come from, I have a good guess based on reading the same works our founders did.
The name “the United States” likely comes from CHAP. III of Other Requisites in a confederate Republic of Montesquieu’s 1748 Spirit of the Laws where he discusses past confederations of republican states in the Old World and says, “It is difficult for the united states to be all of equal power and extent. The Lycian* republic was an association of twenty-three towns; the large ones had three votes in the common council, the middling ones two, and the small towns one. The Dutch republic consists of seven princes of different extent of territory, which have each one voice. Were I to give a model of an excellent confederate republic, I should pitch upon that of Lycia.”
In this work Montesquieu coins many of the concepts Madison and the other founders use later in our Constitution like the separation of powers. It stands to reason they were influenced by this section as well. The book describes the ideas behind our Constitution before it was written; it was one of the most cited books in revolutionary America.
Importantly the book includes the concept of a large confederation of republics with a central government and a separation of powers; a United Confederation of Republican States [and Commonwealths]. When we pair this with the term America, we get the Untied States of America. If Columbus had written more or Amerigo Vespucci less, we could have been named the United States of Columbia (see past names of all major American parties).