I’ve always wondered why there are such widely varying names in different languages for the country between France and Poland. We call it Germany, the French call it Allemagne, and the Germans themselves call it Deutschland. Surely we see in such disagreements the roots of much recent tragic history. Why can’t everybody just be sensible and settle on one name? –Listener, Drew Hayes Show, WMAQ, Chicago

You are a good soul, Les, but you lack an appreciation of the philological niceties. There is no necessary correspondence between a nation’s name for itself and the name outsiders bestow upon it. This is especially true when the nation or people is very old. In ancient times, when international affairs consisted chiefly of heaving rocks at the tribe over the hill, a people’s name for itself was often the local equivalent of “us folks” or “the people,” while its name for foreigners was generally some variant on “those frog-faced heathens” or, more kindly, “the gang over yonder.” Naturally, the gang over yonder called itself “the people” in its own language while reserving another term for the cretins down the pike.

The various names for Germany are a good example of this. The deutsch in Deutschland probably derives from the Indo-European root teuta- (or tewt-, depending on which authority you believe), the source of our word Teuton. Teuta- means “the tribe” or “the people,” the word the early Germans used to describe themselves.

The Romans, meanwhile, referred to the German-speaking tribes collectively as Germani. Where they got this word is not clear. Many authorities believe it was a Celtic term meaning “neighbors” that the Gauls bestowed on the folks next door. (There’s an Old Irish word gair meaning “neighbor,” although there’s also an Old Irish word gairm meaning “battle cry.” The path of linguistic progress is never easy.) One holdout thinks it was the name of a Celtic people the Teutons conquered and whose name somehow got transferred to the victors.

It is tempting to conclude that Germanus (singular of Germani) has some connection to another Latin word, germanus, “of the same race, a relative,” inasmuch as they are spelled and pronounced the same way and both partake of the idea of relationship. The latter term is the source of the modern English germane, meaning “pertinent” or “closely related,” and is itself derived from the Latin germen, “offshoot, sprout,” from which we get our word germ. However, linguists insist we dast not conflate the two, and Cecil humbly declines to dispute them. Respect for authority in our society has been undermined enough already.

Moving right along, one of the German-speaking tribes in Roman times was called the Alemanni. They settled in what is now Alsace in the fourth century AD and were defeated by the Franks in 496. Alemanni may derive from an early German word meaning “all the men,” which I suppose is roughly equivalent to “all us guys”–as opposed, naturally, to all you guys. The Franks, in a moment of uncharacteristic liberality, apparently decided to call the Alemanni by the name they called themselves. Later, by means of the metaphoric process called synecdoche, taking the part for the whole, the Franks applied the name to all the German-speaking tribes, and thus we have Allemagne. The Spanish, not having any strong opinions on the matter, sensibly simplified the orthography and wound up with Alemania.

The various names for Germany are perhaps the extreme example of diversity in geographical nomenclature. The Italians call Germany Germania, but their word for a German is tedesco, which is their quaint attempt to spell Teuton. The Polish word for Germany is Niemcy, whose meaning is entirely mysterious, at least to me. Given the Polish experience of German manners during time of war, however, I could guess.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.