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Why is Switzerland called Switzerland?

“Switzerland” is an anglicised version of the country’s original name in German (Schweiz). Where did this originate?

The origin of Switzerland’s multilingual name is rooted in history.
Switzerland has several names but only one flag, here in Geneva’s Old Town. Photo by Philipp Potocnik on Unsplash

The English name for Switzerland comes from the German ‘Schweiz’, which is also known as Suisse in French, Svizzera in Italian and Svizra in Romansh – the other official languages of Switzerland. 

But where did that name come from? As far as we know, has its origins in events that shaped its history throughout many centuries. Is it possible that Helvetic tribes that inhabited this land long ago picked the name at random and then voted on it in a referendum?

We cannot know that for sure (especially the referendum part, as direct democracy is a more recent development), but here is what we do know: this name wasn’t just picked out of a helmet.

The theories are many and varied, with nobody quite sure exactly where the name came from. 

Where did Switzerland get its name?

It appears that there are as many theories about the origin of Switzerland’s name as there are names for the country. 

As Wikipedia tells us, the name might have derived from the Celtic word “Sveit” as early as in year 972. The name ‘Schweiz’ was first mentioned in a legal document in 1415

Another version has it that the country’s Germanic name, Schweiz, is based on Schwyz, one of the three cantons that in 1291 formed the nucleus of modern-day Switzerland (and remains a canton to this day). 

The thirteen cantons which formerly made up the Swiss Confederacy. Image: Wikicommons

But that’s not all. Documents from the 15th and 16th centuries suggest a link with Suit / Swit / Schwyt / Switer,  a leader of a tribe that migrated here from Sweden — which could explain why some people think Sweden and Switzerland are the same country (spoiler alert: they are not).

However, yet another historical record suggests that the name originates from “Switzer”, an “obsolete term for a Swiss person which was in use during the 16th to 19th centuries”.

In the very least, this explanation would give the English-language version of the name, Switzer-land, some credibility. 

Historians have given perhaps the most credence to this explanation, with some arguing that the term Swiz or Switz was actually an insult for the armies which came from the regions of modern day Switzerland used by armies from modern day Germany and Austria. 

Initially, the frequently victorious Swiss armies – remember this was long before Swiss neutrality – hated this word, but began to call themselves Swiss out of spite. 

EXPLAINED: Why is Switzerland always neutral?

Over time, the name caught on and the insult value diminished, until 1803 when the Helvetic Republic was officially named the Swiss Confederation. 

Let this be a lesson to anyone who doesn’t like their nickname or feels insulted by what someone calls them – you can embrace it and use it against them, like a clever judo move. 

One country, many names

What about the French, Italian and Romansh names for Switzerland?

Since German (or a form thereof) was the only language spoken in the country in the early days, Switzerland  has been called “Schweiz” the longest.

As French and Italian-speaking regions began to join the confederation over the next centuries, they brought their own linguistic versions of the country’s name: Soisses and Suysses were the early French names (which eventually evolved into Suisse), while Sviceri / Suyzeri morphed into Svizzera in Italian.

READ MORE: How did Switzerland become a country with four languages?

However, throughout many centuries, the country that is now Switzerland / Schweiz / Suisse / Svizzera / Svizra had been known simply as the Helvetic Confederation, or Helvetia.

The abbreviation of its original Latin version, Confœderatio Helvetica — CH — is still commonly used in Swiss postal codes, stamps, car stickers, and internet addresses.

This is also reflected in other languages, such as Romanian, where Switzerland is known as Elveția. 

 Image: Wikicommons.

Few foreigners are aware that Helvetia / Helvetic Confederation and Switzerland are one and the same country, though hopefully many more know that Switzerland and Sweden are not.

READ MORE: Why does Switzerland use ‘CH’ and what does it mean?

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EXPLAINED: Why does neutral Switzerland need an army?

Given that Switzerland has not fought in any wars since the mid-19th century, the question about why the neutral country needs an active military is a legitimate one.

EXPLAINED: Why does neutral Switzerland need an army?

The last armed conflict that Switzerland was involved in was a short civil war in 1847.

Since then, while Swiss troops were mobilised — and ready to fight — in both World Wars, they did not engage in any combat (though the military did, on at least three occasions, ’invade’ Liechtenstein).

Yet, despite its longstanding tradition of neutrality and non-involvement in wars, every Swiss man is required to serve in the military from the age of 18 to 30.

This also includes  naturalised citizens.

READ MORE: Do naturalised Swiss citizens have to do military service?

The Swiss take this obligation very seriously, considering it their patriotic and civic duty.

Fortunately, Switzerland’s armed forces have never been tested in battle.

During WWII, the country was ready for combat, with every soldier armed and able to fight his way to his regiment’s assembly point at a moment’s notice.

Also, the military reportedly booby-trapped all tunnels, bridges and viaducts, and were ready to detonate the explosives if Germany dared to invade.

So does the army serve any real purpose?

The Swiss refer to their brand of sovereignty as “armed neutrality”, which means that while their army can’t fight in wars outside their own territory, it must defend the country against aggression within its own borders.

Therefore, the goal of the standing military is to ensure internal security — but not only. As the recent history has shown, the army’s role is not just a purely military one, but can extend into the civilian realm as well.

During the height of Covid pandemic in 2020 and 2021, the army was deployed to support the healthcare system by setting up logistics, supplying medical material, transporting patients, and in other roles.

According to the Defence Ministry, one of the basic missions of the Swiss armed forces “is to support the civilian authorities, when their resources are no longer sufficient”.

Aside from helping out with health crises, as was the case with Covid, the military can also be deployed to “ward off severe threats”, as well as “master other exceptional situations, in particular in the event of disasters”.

And while Swiss troops can’t go around invading other countries, they can be involved in disaster relief efforts abroad.

“The objective of humanitarian aid support is primarily to save lives and to ensure the survival of people at risk, and may include rebuilding vital infrastructure», Defence Ministry said.

Could the army defend the country against invasion?

This is purely theoretical, of course, as Switzerland has no such prior experience. The country didn’t even fight back when Napoleon came to call in 1798.

There is no way to know for sure whether the current equipment and 147,510 troops (including 102,715 rank and file soldiers) could defend Switzerland from attack.

However, the question of the country’s defence capabilities is a valid one amid rising tensions across Europe.

It is even more pertinent as in 2010, Switzerland scrapped much of its military equipment when it dramatically downsized the armed forces, along with military spending — a trend that had continued in following years.

Even private homes with obligatory fallout shelters to be used in case of an attack were gradually phased out in favour of communal facilities.

Not surprisingly, a number of MPs have been calling for better preparedness, including re-equipping of ground troops and the renewal of the air force — the latter of which has been done with the purchase of 36 F-35A fighter jets from the US to replace the  country’s current ageing fleet.

READ MORE: Could Switzerland defend itself against invasion?