‘Africa’ Is A Roman Name

“No one can imagine the beauty of the view from anything witnessed in England. It had never been seen before by European eyes; but scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” —David Livingstone

In A Nutshell

Africa was not a name given to the continent by its inhabitants, but was instead a name created by the Romans. This most likely occurred during Rome’s wars with the North African empire of Carthage—either as a re-tooling of a Greek or Phoenician name, or as a result of an encounter with a North African tribe.

The Whole Bushel

“Africa”—land of the Afer—was a name used by the Romans to refer to the region belonging to Carthage, a powerful North African empire they clashed with during the Punic Wars. In all likelihood, Africa is not an African word; instead, its phonetic origins may originate with the Greeks or Phoenicians.

In the Phoenician language, “afar” means “dust.” Alternatively, the Greek word “aphrike” means “without cold.” In Latin, “aprica” means “sunny.” These vague characteristic-driven names would not be inappropriate, if somewhat unfamiliar, names for North Africa; it would not be implausible for the Romans to have borrowed one of these terms. Indeed, Renaissance historian Leo Africanus suggested the Greek name as the origin of the continent name.

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An alternate explanation may come from a North African tribe that the Romans encountered in Carthage, the Afri, or Ifira. The Ifira were a group of Berbers that dwelt in modern-day Tunisia. The name is still in use today. Africa, then, would be “the land of the Afri,” instead of “the land without cold.”

In any case, “Africa” almost certainly did not refer to the continent’s sub-Saharan inhabitants. Ironically, Sub-Saharans are the ones largely associated with the name today: African culture, African languages, and African people groups are terms that colloquially include the entire continent except North Africa—where the name was originally applied.

Show Me The Proof

The Names of Countries and Continents
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