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  • William Tyler

Etymology of Baltic Countries' names

Recently asked what was the origin of the name Lithuania - which I didn't know - set me thinking. Hence this blog.

I am always pleased when asked, as an adult tutor, questions I can't answer because there is a tendency, inherited from school. that 'teacher knows everything'. We most certainly do not. Questions that can't be answered also puncture any sense of growing hubris.


Norway - the way to the north - is first found in an English document of 880 AD. The Norwegians themselves use the term Norge, the North.

Sweden - derived from a tribe called Svea in c.500 AD. The Swedes call their country Sverige- Land of the Svea, Land of the Swedes.

Finland - Land of The Finns. Although the Finns, ever the exception to other Nordic countries, call their country Suomi. The exact origin of this term remains unclear.

Estonia - from people called Aesti (a term found in the works of the Roman author Tacitus).

The word Estonia, however, was only adopted in the country in the 19th century.

Latvia - from an ancient people called Latgalians. Previously to being known as Latvia, the country was known as Livonia because the people living there in the Middle Ages were known as Livs, by the Germans, hence Livonia.

Lithuania, which started my search. The term first used in 1008 is, like Suomi, of uncertain origin. The popular etymology suggests it is linked to the local word for rain.


Livonia - a previous name for a region of Latvia and Lithuania, named after a people called Livonians. The term is no longer used and the language has also almost died out.

Courland - another place no longer in existence, although briefly reprieved by Nazi Germany in 1945 when a last stand by Nazi troops in the Baltic took place in this former Baltic Duchy.

The last Duke voluntarily surrendered his country to Russia in 1795. It is now subsumed into Modern Latvia. The oddity about Courland is that it attempted to found an overseas empire. It established short-lived colonies in Trinidad and Tobago, and at the mouth of the Gambia River in West Africa.

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