Why is Greenland called Greenland?

With some 80 percent of its landmass covered in permanent ice sheets, Greenland is probably one of least green nations on earth. So why is it called Greenland? 

Why is it called Greenland when its so icy?

It’s also true that it’s snowier and more frozen than Iceland, so why is Greenland called Greenland if it is icy?

Read on to find out all about the Norse etymology of Greenland, who gave Greenland its name, and to discover what are Greenland natives called.

Why did they call Greenland Greenland?

Legend has is that Greenland was named by the Viking Erik the Red, who landed in Greenland in around 983 AD with a small group of settlers. 

Erik travelled around Greenland, naming several parts of the island after himself as a way of claiming ownership, including Eriksfjord (now renamed Tunulliarfik Fjord), where he settled and built his home. 

Why is Greenland called Greenland?
Brattahlíð / Claire Rowland (CC)

The homestead that he built, called Brattahlíð, lies at the top of a sheltered fjord in southwest Greenland, where the current settlement of Qassiarsuk is now located.

It’s protected as a World Heritage site and the former church here, thought to have been built in the fourteenth century, has been reconstructed.

Once Erik had established settlements in some of the more fertile, greener parts of the island, he sailed back to Iceland to try and persuade some of his fellow kinsmen to join him in Greenland. 

The prevailing theory is that he told them the new land he had discovered was called Greenland, because he thought it would make it sound more appealing to potential settlers! 

His PR ploy must have worked because he left Iceland with 35 ships full of Icelanders and animals to colonise Greenland – though only 14 of the ships actually arrived.

Who was Erik the Red?

There are many legends and stories associated with Erik the Red, who features in the Icelandic sagas.

Some sources say that he was a Norwegian explorer, while others claim that he fled from Norway with his father who was exiled for murder. 

Eriksfjord in Greenland was named after Erik the Red.
Eriksfjord (CC)

Either way, Erik and his father left Norway and sailed to Iceland, where they settled and Erik married a local woman called Thorhild from a wealthy family. 

However, Erik was soon exiled from Iceland too, after being convicted of the murder of two of his neighbour’s sons.

Since he couldn’t return to Norway, he sailed further west still and landed in Greenland.

Accounts of Erik the Red describe him as having bright red hair and a beard, hence his name.

Other sources, however, suggest he got his name because of his fiery temper – a fact possibly borne out by his convictions for murder!

Why is Greenland called Greenland and Iceland called Iceland?

So, we can see that Greenland’s name came about from an attempt to lure settlers to come and colonise it.

It’s also likely that Greenland was actually greener a thousand years ago when Erik the Red landed there, with some evidence suggesting that the island’s southern reaches were forested. 

Greenland isn't actually very green
highflyer100 (CC)

And it’s true that Erik landed in one of the most sheltered and temperate parts of the island – which is actually further south than Iceland – so perhaps he didn’t realise quite how icy the rest of the island was!

But how did Iceland get its name, when only around 11 percent of the country is covered in permanent ice caps? 

It seems that the island’s original name was actually Snæland (which means Snowland), but it was renamed by a Viking called Hrafna-Flóki, who saw a fjord full of ice-bergs and so called the island Iceland.

Hrafna-Flóki is thought to have had a hard time in Iceland – his daughter drowned on the way there and all his animals died during his first winter there.

Therefore, he may well not have felt too positive about the island, and wanted to dissuade other settlers from coming there – hence the slightly less appealing name. 

And whilst it may seem that the two countries’ names are the wrong the way round, they may actually become more fitting in the future.

Scientists think that one of the effects of global warming is that Greenland’s ice sheets will begin to melt making the country greener. 

Polar bears can be seen in Greenland
Andreas Preußer (CC)

As a result, the increased meltwater in the sea is likely to push the Gulf Stream further south, so that Iceland is predicted to become colder and more icy.

What is Greenland called in English?

Greenland is the anglicised version of the island’s name – it’s Grœnland in Old Norse, Grænland in modern Icelandic and Grønland in Danish and Norwegian. 

In Greenlandic, however, the island is called Kalaallit Nunaat, which translates as “land of the Greenlanders”. And this is what Greenland was called before the arrival of Erik the Red. 

Greenland is called Kalaallit Nunaat by native Greenlanders.
Helene Brochmann (CC)

Another name for Greenland is Inuit Nunaat, which means “land of the people”.

What is someone from Greenland called? 

Inhabitants of Greenland are called Greenlanders (or Grønlændere in Danish), or Kalaallit, which means “indigenous Greenlander” in the native language Kalaallisut.

Around 90 percent of native Greenlanders are of Inuit descent, and so refer to themselves as Kalaallit. 

The Kalaallit are actually a tribe of Inuit who come from western Greenland, and there are also smaller tribes – the Tunumi-it from eastern Greenland and the Inughuit from the north of the island.

However, since the Kalaallit are by far the majority tribe, it is this name that has been adopted for general use. So, citizens of Greenland are called both Kalaallit and Greenlanders.

See also:
Greenland vs Iceland
Do people live in Greenland?
Seeing the northern lights in Greenland

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