For millennia Europeans believed that the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. They drew the three continents in countless shapes and sizes on their maps, but occasionally they hinted at the existence of a “fourth part of the world,” a mysterious, inaccessible place, separated from the rest by a vast expanse of ocean. It was a land of myth — until 1507, that is, when Martin Waldseemüller and Matthias Ringmann, two obscure scholars working in the mountains of eastern France, made it real. Columbus had died the year before convinced that he had sailed to Asia, but Waldseemüller and Ringmann, after reading about the Atlantic discoveries of Columbus’s contemporary Amerigo Vespucci, came to a startling conclusion: Vespucci had reached the fourth part of the world. To celebrate his achievement, Waldseemüller and Ringmann printed a huge map, for the first time showing the New World surrounded by water and distinct from Asia, and in Vespucci’s honor they gave this New World a name: America.

Toby Lester (Yemen 1988-90), later Peace Corps Desk Officer (1990-92) working on setting up the Peace Corps programs in the former Soviet sphere, has a book out about how we came to be called America and not, say, Faranjiland.

Toby lives in Boston and is a contributing editor to The Atlantic. His book, The Fourth Part of the World, tells  the little-known and fascinating story of the map that gave America its name — which turns out to be the much bigger story of how Europeans and others managed, over the course of centuries, to piece together the first picture (roughly) of the world as we know it today. Check out his website at:www.tobylester.com.

(And you thought it all began with mapquest!)