Smoky bays, black pools and merchants’ harbors
There’s a funny idiosyncrasy on Italian maps: There are two Monacos. One is a principality on Italy’s northwestern border, the other is Germany’s third-largest city.
The reason is simple. Monaco means “monk” in Italian, and both of these places were once known for the hermits who inhabited them.
The independent city state of Monaco, sandwiched between the Italian Riviera and the Côte d’Azur, may be known these days for its casinos and yacht parties, but back in the 6th century B.C. it was known for the loners who lived in what was then considered the middle of nowhere. So the Greeks gave it the name Monoikos or “solitary house.” (Mono = one or solitary, ikos = house). This word became monaco in Italian.
Meanwhile, the Bavarian capital known as Monaco in Italian was the site of a Benedictine monastery. The Germans honor those founders by calling it “monks” or München. The original name in Old German was Munich, which of course remains the name in English today.
In much of Europe, naming a city for the people who founded it was pretty common practice. Paris was named for the Parisii tribe who built that city on the Seine. Rome was named for the legend of its first king, Romulus, who along with his brother Remus founded that city on the Tiber.
Even more common was naming cities for the water that drew settlers there in the first place.
Frankfurt – originally Franconofurd – was named for the narrow crossing, or ford, of the Main River, founded by the Franks. Prague was originally Praga, an old Slavic word for a ford – in this case, on the Vltava River. The twin cities of Buda and Pest (jointly referred to as Budapest) were named for the “water” and “oven,” respectively, on either shore of the Danube.
Amsterdam, unsurprisingly, is a dam on the Amstel River. Berlin comes from the Slavic word for a “marsh”. Reykjavik is a “smoky bay” in Icelandic. Copenhagen is a “merchant’s harbor” in Danish. And the Irish named Dublin for a “black pool” they found there.
Moscow, or Moskva, is just the name of the river that runs through it.
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