Ancient Greek Etymology

In Western civilization, one of the first people to wax philological was Herodotus. Herodotus wrote The Histories, a sweeping account of the history of both Greeks and "barbarians;" the research and writing of which took him 30 years. He is often called the first historian for his attempt to acquire all points of view on every event, and critically evaluated each of them for their merits and credibility.

But The Histories is a work that goes beyond history and into the worlds of geography, religion, philosophy, and culture. Herodotus often labored over the meaning of words and their origins. Over the etymology over Europe, Asia, and Libya (read: Africa), he writes:

Nor can I figure out why three names are given to the parts of one landmass [Herodotus is referring to the three continents being connected as one landmass] - and the names of women at that - or how the borders of these divisions came to be the Egyptian river Nile, or the Colchian river Phasis (though some say it is the Maeotic river Tanais and the Straits of Cimmeria. I have not been able to find out who made the divisions, or where they got the women's names from. Most Greeks say that Libya took its name from a native woman, while Asia got its name from the wife of Prometheus. A claim on this name is also made by the Lydians, though, who say that Asia is named after Asies, the son of Cotys, the son of Manes, and not after Asia, the wife of Prometheus. It is after this Asies that the Lydian clan of Asias in the Sardis was named. As to Europe, it is not known by any human being whether it is surrounded by water, or where it took its name from, or who bestowed the name - unless we say that the continent took its name from Europa of Tyre. Before her, of course, it would have had no name - just like the other continents. That woman, though appears to have been from Asia and not to have gotten to the land which the Greeks now call Europe, but only as far as Crete from Phoenicia, and then as far as Lycia from Crete. (Herodotus, The Histories. Trans. by Walter Blanco. W. W. Norton & Co. 1992: 126)

Herodotus gets points for effort, but we are fortunate to live in a time where a little more information is readily available.

  • Asia: Possibly from a Semitic root asu meaning "(sun) rising" or "light." Ancient Greek Ἀσία and Akkadian asu.
  • Europe: Unknown. Perhaps connected to Phoenician 'ereb "evening," though this seems phonologically tenuous.
  • Libya: From the Libu tribe of Egypt. Greeks settled Cyrenaica in Africa, living alongside the Libu for many years. Ancient Greek Λιβύη and Egyptian Hieroglyphics LBW.

It has been 2500 years since Herodotus first asked the origins for the continental names, but if there's one lesson we can draw from this, it's that some problems just won't get solved!