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The origins of the names of some of Croatia’s islands

how croatian islands got names

Croatian islands

There are many theories about how some Croatian islands got the names they are known by today. We reveal the most likely origins of the names of some of those islands, including Korcula, Vis and Hvar.


Cres (Photo credit: Mladen Šćerbe / CNTB (Croatian National Tourist Board)

There are a couple of theories about how the island got its name. One is it is derived from the Proto-Indo-European ‘(s)quer’ meaning ‘cliff’. Another, and more historically correct one, is from classical antiquity when the town was founded and inhabited by ancient Greeks who called it ‘Chersos’, meaning ‘barren land’ or ‘uncultivated land’. This eventually was modified into Cres. 


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Korčula (Photo: Milica Spasojevic)

Korčula is an adaption of the island’s original name given to it by the Greeks which was ‘Korkyra’. Since the Greek island of Corfu was also named Korkyra, Melaina (dark, black) was added so Korčula was originally known as ‘Korkyra Melaina’.

Korkyra is connected to the legend of the beautiful nymph Kerkyra, daughter of Asop, God of Rivers. Poseidon, the God of the Sea, fell in love with her, kidnapped her and held her in captivity on the island.



Ancient Greeks again had an influence in the origins of the name of the island after the originally called it ‘Melita’ or ‘honey’ which over the centuries evolved to become the Slavic name, Mljet.


The island was known as ‘Pharos’, meaning ‘lighthouse’, by the Ancient Greeks. However, it’s not clear if the name really comes from the Greek word for lighthouse. 

As part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, the island was known as ‘Pharia’ and, later, ‘Fara’. Under the linguistic influence of the newcomers, the official name became ‘Quarra’ because Slavic languages did not originally have the ‘f’ sound. Later, the name was changed further to Hvar.



The Greek name of the island was ‘Elaphousa’, apparently derived from elaphos ‘stag’. Based on this, it has been speculated that the original name of the island may have been derived from the word for ‘stag’. Polybius and Plinius record the name of the island as ‘Brattia’ which then developed to Brač. 



There are many theories about how the island of Pag got its name, but the most accepted is that is derived from the Latin word ‘Pagus’ which means ‘boundary staked out on the ground’. The word pagus itself is the stem for Romance languages’ words for state or country.  



The island of Rab was first mentioned around 360 BC and then by Greek and Roman geographers by the name ‘Arba’. That name belonged to the Liburnians, so far the oldest known inhabitants of the island. 

Arba was also the name of the Liburnian settlement in the modern city of Rab. It is not certain how old this name is. The Illyrian-Liburnian word Arb meant ‘dark, obscure, green, forested’. Therefore, the name Arba should be comprehended as a toponym meaning ‘Black Island’, due to the rich pine forests that once grew on the island. In the Croatian language, it became Rab, a form that probably goes back as far as the 7th century


Vis (Photo: Croatian Tourist Board)

In the 4th century BC, the Greeks founded the colony ‘Issa’ on the island of what is today Vis. Issa is thought to have meant ‘spas’ in Illyrian as there were large baths there in Roman times.

It was then known as Lissa under the rule of the Republic of Venice. This was then modified further by the Croatians to Vis. Issa is also the former name of the Greek island Lesbos. 

Check out how some Croatian cities and towns got their names here.

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