Why is France called France?

France comes from the Latin Francia, “land of the Franks”. This term was used to describe the terrain ranging from southern France to eastern Germany. Today the Germans call France Frankreich, literally the “realm of the Franks”. The Kingdom of the Franks, otherwise called the Frankish Empire, occupied the majority of modern France and Germany from AD 481 to 843.

Screenshot 2020-03-31 at 13.12.06
Francia in 814. The pale green regions are the tributary states of the Frankish realm.

Before being known as Francia, the land had the Greek and Latin names Γαλάται (Galátai) and Galatia. Gaul referred to the region of Western Europe inhabited by Celtic people which spanned modern day France, Luxembourg, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Northern Italy. The Romans had control of the land until their defeat by the Franconians in 486 AD. The name derives from the Celtic word Gal(a)-to. The etymology has several developments. The word is related to the Welsh word gallu and the Cornish word galloesboth meaning “someone from Gaul”. Others have connected the Galatians to the Gauls’ “milk-white” skin (γάλα, gála). Later it came to mean “foreigner” after the arrival of the Vikings and Normans.

The words “Wales”, “Welsh”, “Cornwall” and “Wallonia” (southern Belgium) all have their etymological roots in the world Gaul. It comes from Frankish Walholant meaning “land of the foreigners”. The term was applied by Germanic speakers to non-Germanic speakers, i.e. Celts and Latin-speaking people. In Britain, the words weren’t limited to Wales or the Welsh but to any people that weren’t Britons. Walworth (County Durham) and Walton (West Yorkshire) also have similar etymological roots.

Gaul around BC 50. The Romans divided Gaul into the five regions of Gallia Belgica, Gallia Celtica, Gallia Cisalpina, Gallia Narbonensis and Gallia Aquitania.

The self-given Welsh name for Wales is much more friendly. Cymry and Cymru descends from the Brythonic (adjective for Brittonic languages) word combrogi: “fellow-countrymen” and came about just before the 7th century. The term Brythoniaid is sometimes used to describe any Britonnic peoples, i.e. Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

The name Cymru exists in a latinised form, Cambria. This word is still seen in the names of the Cambrian Mountains and numerous organisations such as the Royal Cambrian Academy of Art. Cumbria in North West England share its etymology with Wales. This area was once part of the Yr Hen Ogledd, “the Old North”, which was inhabited by Celtic Britons in the 6th and 7th centuries. They spoke Cumbric, another Brittonic or Brythonic language which died out in the 12th century. 

I find place names and their origins fascinating. It also demonstrates a great deal about human nature that we’ve spent centuries coming up with names for each other that all essentially mean “foreigner” or “other”.

old north
The Old North AD 550 – 650



1 thought on “Why is France called France?

  1. Well done, Lucy. MOST interesting, I love etymology, but have learned several things from your excellent piece that I hadn’t previously known.
    However, I’m surprised that you omitted one of the most famous quotations of all, though – in that, as every Schoolboy learned in his first term doing Latin, the opening words of “Caesar’s Gallic Wars – Part 1” were “Alla Gallia in tres partes divisa est” – which, at age 13, I and all my classmates thought it hilarious to translate as “All Gaul is quartered into three halves”!
    Keep up the Laborem bonum!


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