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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

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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For members

HOUSING

Can a Swiss landlord charge a fee if you renounce to rent an apartment?

Say you signed a registration for a flat in Switzerland, but then changed your mind. What, if any, fees are you liable for if you decide to withdraw your application?

Can a Swiss landlord charge a fee if you renounce to rent an apartment?

In some areas of Switzerland, good and reasonably priced rental properties are difficult to come by, so once you find one, you hold on to it for dear life.

But it can also happen that you change your mind for whatever reason and no longer want to proceed with the rental.

What happens then?

Some rental agencies’ registration forms include a clause stating that if you cancel after a contract has been prepared, you have to pay between 150 and 200 to cover administration costs — even if the contract hasn’t yet been signed.

This is ostensibly for all the time and effort that went into preparing the lease.

If you are unfamiliar with Swiss laws, you may feel a duty to pay these fees, believing that if you don’t, Swiss rental police will knock on your door.

But you can relax: apart from the fact that there’s no such thing in Switzerland as “rental police”, you don’t owe the agency or landlord anything.

That is because registrations and applications of any kind —  including those for rental properties — are non-binding until both parties have signed them. Up to this point, an application can be withdrawn without incurring any costs, even if the agency / landlord have you believe otherwise.

READ MORE: REVEALED: The six major Swiss cities where rents are falling

Why are landlords / rental agencies engaging in this practice?

To be fair, not all of them will attempt to make you pay for failing to sign the lease. Those who do are hoping you don’t know your legal rights, especially if you are a foreigner who (they hope) is still green behind the ears when it comes to rental regulations in Switzerland.

However, according to the official site of canton of Geneva (but this rule applies nationally), some exceptions could be admissible.

If applicants are not acting in “good faith” — for instance, by belatedly expressing their refusal to sign the lease and delaying the rental process while other potential tenants are kept waiting —  the landlord could ask to be compensated.

This is not a clear black-and-white situation though, as “good faith” calls for subjective judgements, ones that the landlord or rental agency could not make unless they have proof that candidates’ actions were dishonest — which is also difficult to prove.

But even in this case, the landlord “could only invoice his actual costs: the costs of drafting the lease contract and sending it out, for example”, according to the Swiss Tenants Association (ASLOCA).

You should also inform yourself about what your landlord can and cannot demand of you.

“You have to remember that just because something is written in the lease doesn’t mean it’s true”, ASLOCA said.

“Lease law is protective of the tenant and takes into consideration that the latter does not necessarily have the possibility or the resources to read and carefully negotiate any clause of his lease”.

If uncertain of what your rights and obligations are, this official government site provides useful information and  resources, including who, in your canton of residence, can help in case of a dispute with your landlord.

READ MORE: Tenant in Switzerland? Here’s how to apply for a rent reduction

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