Do you ever WONDER how things get their names? Some names make sense. Anyone can see why we call an eight-legged sea creature an OCTOpus. However, other names make less sense. One that many people question is Iceland. Why is it called Iceland, when the island is actually quite green? On that note, what about Greenland? Isn’t most of that country covered in ice?
Some people might think we just got the two names confused. After all, the islands are close to each other! However, that isn’t the case.
The Vikings named both places. Normally, the Vikings named things as they saw them. For instance, when Leif Erikson landed in Canada, the first thing he saw was grapes growing on a vine. Looking at the vine, he named the land “Vinland.” So how did they come up with the names for Iceland and Greenland?
As for Iceland, according to the Sagas of Icelanders, which chronicles the country’s history from the 9th to 11th century, the Norse explorer called Naddador was the first to reach the island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. What he saw there was snow, so he named the place Snæland or “snow land.”
Naddador was followed by the Viking colonizer Garðar Svavarosson, who was more into naming the country after himself, probably making a precedent in the established tradition. So, Garðarshólmur (“Garðar’s Isle”) became the next name under which today’s Iceland was known.
But the reason why Iceland bears such a grim name today is related to the island’s next colonizer, Flóki Vilgerðarson. Flóki’s trip from the mainland was marked by the loss of his daughter, who fell from the boat and drowned in the open sea. Soon upon arrival, the livestock he brought with him died.
According to the sagas, this string of unfortunate events was crowned when Flóki Vilgerðarson climbed a nearby mountaintop from which he observed a fjord, laced with icebergs. Depressed and enraged, he christened the country Iceland―a name which stuck to this day.
The icebergs Vilgerðarson saw weren’t common in Iceland. Today, many people think they probably floated over from Greenland. Still, the name “Iceland” stuck. Years later, Iceland was home to many Vikings. Erik the Red was one of the people who lived there. After a bloody feud, they banished Erik the Red from Iceland. He left the island and sailed west.
In 985 CE, Erik the Red landed in the southwest of Greenland — one of the few regions that weren’t covered in ice. In fact, the area still holds thrivingfarms today. Seeing all the green plant life, Erik the Red named his new home “Greenland.” Erik also chose the name in hopes that it would make more people want to move there.
Small settlements did develop in Greenland. However, the Vikings in Greenland didn’t know they were living during the Medieval Warm Period. This was a time of warm climate in the Northern Atlantic that wouldn’t last. Around the year 1257 CE, a volcanic eruption in Indonesia set off a “Little Ice Age.” It made temperatures colder in both Greenland and Iceland.
The change in Greenland was much more extreme than in Iceland. The island became colder each year. The Vikings tried to adjust to the new climate. However, the new temperatures made food rare and seafaring risky. Eventually, no Vikings remained in Greenland. Most of the island was covered in a sheet of ice.
Today, the climate is changing again. Greenland’s ice sheet is now melting! And, believe it or not, the ice melting in Greenland is making Iceland colder. In fact, experts predict that if this continues, the two islands may one day live up to their names. In a few hundred years, Greenland may be green and Iceland may be icy.
How is this possible? The melting ice is making the North Atlantic Ocean colder. This cold slows the Gulf Stream, which is an ocean current that brings warm water from the Gulf of Mexico all the way up to Iceland. With the stream slowing, warm water will not reach Iceland, and the island will begin to cool.
We WONDER where other countries got their names! Where did “America” come from? What about “Brazil” or “Canada”? Does each country’s name have a story like Greenland and Iceland?