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What does Helvetia mean?



Everyone has seen Swiss stamps with the legend HELVETIA on them. The same is true for Swiss coins. Most people know that this name represents Switzerland. Switzerland is a multi-lingual, multi-cultural confederation, with beginnings dating back to the year 1291.

The languages spoken by the Swiss people are German, French, Italian, and to some extent, Romanish. The name of the country in these languages is "Schweiz" (German), "Suisse" (French), "Svizzera" (Italian), and "Svizra" (Romanish).

Hey, wait! Where is "Switzerland"? "Switzerland" is a 16th Century Anglicized version of the German word "Schweiz" ... a person from Schweiz would thus be called a "Schweizer", and the land that they come from would be called similarly "Schweizerland". Well ... that makes sense!

By the same analogy, I would imagine that the English word "Swiss", used to describe anyone or anything from Switzerland, is derived from the French word "Suisse".

OK, we know all the modern names for Switzerland. But what of Swiss stamps and coins? What then is "Helvetia"? Helvetia is actually the REAL LATIN language name of the country, given to it in ancient times.


In the map of ancient Gaul, shown above, one of the most important tribes inhabiting the western part of present day Switzerland was known as the "Helvetii". The location can be seen at the middle-right side of the map. In 58 BC, during the Second Gallic War, the armies of Julius Caesar defeated the Helvetii at the battle of Bibracte. Years later, in 44 BC, Julius Caesar built the first Roman settlement on the Rhine at Augusta Raurica. Today, it is one of the most important archeological sites in Switzerland. The Helvetii were subsequently integrated into the Roman Empire. In the early middle ages, the area of present day Switzerland was subsequently settled by the Alemanni, the Burgundians, and then the Franks. After 1000, the area was under the control of the Holy Roman Empire and then under control of the Habsburgs.

During the Napoleanic Wars, the area was named the "Helvetic Republic".

In 1848, when the cantons of the former Helvetic Republic joined together to become a single country, the new country was named the "Confederatio Helvetica".


Ever wonder what the ISO symbol for Switzerland, "CH", stands for? It stands for "Confederatio Helvetica", or the "Helvetican Confederation".

But what of the female figure on some Swiss coins and early Swiss stamps that we see? This Helvetia is the female personification of Switzerland. The allegory is typically pictured in a flowing gown, with a spear and a shield with the Swiss arms. She is commonly depicted with braided hair, adorned with a wreath, which is the symbol of confederation.

The Swiss Confederation continues to use the name in its Latin form, where it is inappropriate or difficult to use all of its four official languages on public documents. Thus, the name appears on Swiss stamps and on Swiss coinage, to this day.




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