I set out to discover just that for this weekly column.
First, I asked a few of my Filipino friends around town, “Where did the name ‘Philippines’ come from?”
The responses were entertaining, if not entirely accurate.
“It was named after the conquerer who loved pineapple.”
"I think you told me the other day, and it was someone's name, but I forgot."
“From Spanish time I think. Filipino are slaves of Spaniards. And Filipinos are not tall people. ”
“Is this for your newspaper?”
“OMG why not just Google it?”
And the quips from foreigners were even more nonsensical, as expected, like: “It’s something the Spaniards said after first drinking tuba.”
In fact, in my extremely unscientific survey, only about 10% of all Filipinos knew the origins of their own country’s name. (And even fewer foreigners.) But a couple of my friends did nail it, spot-on.
So what’s the right answer?
The etymology of “Philippines” comes from the name that honored King Philip II of Spain, who was actually still just the Prince of Asturias when he commissioned the exploration of the archipelago. It was Spanish explorer Ruy López de Villalobos, who sailed here in 1542, landing in Leyte and Samar and calling them “Felipinas” after his Prince/patron.
The then-Prince Philip did become King of Spain from 1554 to 1598, and by all accounts, he was a tyrant and a bumbling ruler who's decision to invade the British Islands with his Spanish Armada led to the gradual decline of Spanish world dominance.
(Side note: “Philip” comes from a Greek word meaning “Lover of Horses,” although maybe it should mean “Lover of Lechon.”)
That name soon evolved to Las Islas Filipinas, or “the Islands of Philip” in Spanish.
Interestingly, this name had nothing to do with Magellan (which was my guess), who first visited the islands in 1521 and called them “San Lázaro.”
Las Islas Filipinas stuck throughout Spanish rule until the Spanish-American War of 1898. During the Treaty of Paris that ended that war and formalized Spanish defeat, the territory is listed as The Philippine Islands, an English version of the Spanish name.
But during the brief Philippine Revolution, the Malolos Congress wanted to call their to-be-sovereign state República Filipina. And in the native Tagalog language, it was referred to as Republika ng Pilipinas.
However, the name “Philippines Islands” stuck through American commonwealth rule and World War II, and then officially became The Republic of the Philippines.
So why the “The?” I learned that many conquered lands were labeled with “The” as property while they were under European colonial rule. But while many of these nations adopted new names when they became independent, The Philippines did not. To this day, it stands with The Gambia and The Netherlands as the only three similarly labeled countries on earth.
Former President Ferdinand Marcos wanted to call the nation “Maharlika” and its people “Maharlikans” after “respected and courteous calling to a noble man or women by our ancestors” – a term that may have formed from “mahal kita or mahal na nilikha.” (Mahal meaning “love,” of course.)
Over the decades, there has still been a call to change the name again from the current Colonial version to something in honor of national hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal. But that’s fallen on deaf ears of late, as “Rizal-Land” or some variation just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
In the immortal words of rapper Biggie Smalls, “And if you don’t know, now ya know!”