Emmerich the Beautiful
Last week, I was surprised to see the name Americus submitted to Namipedia...as a girl's name. The -us form is the Roman masculine -- think Julius and Antonius vs. Julia and Antonia. But the reader who submitted the name, Aurora, is careful about such things. What did she know that I didn't? Time to go name digging!
First, the usage. Americus was a modestly common 19th-century American name. Use was mostly Southern and overwhelmingly rural. Within those boundaries, though, Americuses came in all stripes: male and female, black and white. (The black Americuses included quite a few born into slavery. Whether the name was given by slave owners or adopted as a statement by new freemen, I can't say.)
Americus isn't a common name in other countries, so the American usage was clearly inspired by the name of the nation. Yet it isn't a American creation per se. You probably know that the name America comes from the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Vespucci was a merchant who took part in a series of voyages several years after Columbus. His expeditions along the coast of South America established that the land was indeed a "New World," not just scattered islands. This discovery was reported in celebrated letters which some at the time considered immodest attempts to steal glory from Columbus.
In fact, modern scholars believe that those widely-circulated Vespucci letters were fakes written by others. Vespucci himself was a more modest fellow. But real or not, the letters had a lasting legacy. A Latin translation of them was included in a book by a German geographer named Martin Waldseemüller. In Latin writings, Amerigo Vespucci was rendered as Americus Vespucius. A few years later, Waldseemüller published a world map in which he named the new land after Vespucci. On the model of Europa and Asia, which were named after women, he chose the feminine form of the Latin: America.
So that's how the Italian man Amerigo gave us the Latin female America. But where did Amerigo itself come from? Curiously, in the schoolbook accounts of "where the name America comes from," this question is never asked. The answer is...well, guesswork. Some think it was an early form of Enrico, which would make America a form of Henry. Most, though, believe it's from the Germanic Emmerich (meaning unclear, but probably home or whole + strength/ruler). That makes the closest English relatives Emery and Emerson.
So let's recap. America is a male Germanic name, adopted to medieval Italian, translated from the Italian to scholarly Latin, then switched to feminine form by a German who used it to describe lands claimed by Portugal and Spain. And it means either Henry or Emery. Then in the 19th Century, it was turned back to the masculine form to sound scholarly and classical, and was used for both boys and girls.
Put it all together and you get an object lesson in the limits of "meanings and origins." This name has been transformed utterly from its Germanic roots, acquiring deep new layers of meaning along the way. You could say that it's a name that forged its own meaning, with the help of ethnic crosscurrents, individual initiative, happenstance, and a pinch of chutzpah. All in all, a not a bad symbol of the New World.