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Our island’s name

What, exactly, is it?

That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.{a}

‘St. Helena’? ‘St Helena’? ‘Saint Helena’? ‘St. Helena Island’? ‘Island of St. Helena’? …

Our island’s name

Our island got its name from the Christian Saint, Saint Helena. The island was christened by its discoverer, João da Nova, but over the years many ways have been devised to write the island’s name. Here we explore which is the correct one.

How to QQQQQpronounceQQQQQ ‘St Helena’

Let’s get one thing straight, right from the start… However you choose to spell our island’s name, it’s always pronounced the same way:

‘Saint Heleeeeenah’
seɪnt həˈliːnə

Please do not pronounce it ‘Saint Helaynah’ or like the girl’s name!

Variations of the name

Below: Name variants in common useOther publicationsRules of grammarWhat do the earliest documents say?Authoritative document?Does it matter?And the answer is…

Name variants in common use

If you look around the Internet or in locally-produced documents you will find our island referred to by a number of names:

⋅ Saint Helena;

⋅ St Helena;

⋅ St. Helena;

⋅ Saint Helena Island.

⋅ St Helena Island;

⋅ St. Helena Island;

⋅ Island of Saint Helena;

⋅ Island of St Helena;

⋅ Island of St. Helena;

Which of these is the correct name? The answer isn’t as easy as you might think.

Other publications

Herald, 20120309

The St Helena newspapers use all of ‘St. Helena’, ‘St Helena’ and ‘Saint Helena’. The previous Government newspaper (The Herald) once managed to use both ‘St Helena’ and ‘St. Helena’ in the same item! (see picture)

The island’s 2014 telephone directory was no more helpful. Published by Sure, the cover announced that it was the ‘Telephone Directory 2014, St Helena Island’ but the first page called it the ‘St. Helena Island Telephone Directory 2014’. And Sure’s address was given as ‘PO Box 2, Jamestown, Island of St.Helena’ (a variation we have not seen elsewhere - ‘St.Helena’ as one word, with no space). The 2016 directory was similar: ‘St Helena Island Telephone Directory’ on the cover; ‘St. Helena Island Telephone Directory’ inside; but they did put the space into the postal address.

The Government of St Helena website, seems to use St Helena quite consistently but its publication is called ‘The St. Helena Government Gazette’.

The Wikipedia uses ‘Saint Helena’.

Our new airport is called ‘St Helena Airport’ but this has already been variously reported as ‘St. Helena Airport’ and ‘Saint Helena Airport’.

Rules of grammar

Could applying the rules of grammar lead to a simple result? Our island is named after a Saint, specifically Helena, the wife of the Roman emperor Constantius Chlorus and the mother of the emperor Constantine the Great. So, grammatically, we only have two choices: ‘Saint Helena’ or ‘St. Helena’. It would be improper to abbreviate ‘Saint’ to ‘St’. But it doesn’t help us to decide between the two, or whether to add ‘Island of’ to the front or ‘Island’ to the end.

What do the earliest documents say?

Galvano’s ‘Discoveries of the world’, published in 1601
Galvano’s ‘Discoveries of the world’, published in 1601

The earliest document we can trace that refers to our island is Galvano’s ‘Discoveries of the world’, published in 1601, available from Google Books™ in an English translation by the Hakluyt Society in 1862 but with the original Portuguese text incorporated. In page 98 we read achram a ilha aque poseram nome de santa Elena (translated as found an island called Santa Helena). That would suggest that our island’s original name should be unabbreviated: Saint Helena.


But then a lot of the early map-makers call it other things: Ortelius’ ‘World Map’ from 1570 calls it ‘St. Helena’; Pierre Du Val, in 1664, refers to it as ‘I Ste Helene’ (but then he was French); William Berry (English) has ‘S. Helena’ (not even a ‘t’!) and Herman Moll (German born, but moved to London in his twenties) has ‘I S. Helena’. (You can see excerpts from all these maps on our page Two St Helenas?.)

So not much help here.

Amusingly, in the Records we see that some pre-colonisation English sailors referred to the island as ‘Helena’, omitting the ‘Saint’, but this was for religious reasons - Puritans did not believe in Saints. We don’t think this counts as a valid name.

An authoritative document?

St. Helena has a Constitution, in force since 1st September 2009, reference S.I. 2009 No.1751 (UK). The Constitution is the most fundamental of our laws - any law that does not match up with the Constitution is required to be changed. So it’s probably safe to assert that our Constitution is our most authoritative modern document.

So what does our Constitution give as our island’s name? The answer seems to lie in Paragraph 4 on page 2, which says (our emphasis):

The territory of St Helena and Dependencies shall be called St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha.

The very first paragraph, 1. (1), states:

This Order may be cited as the St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha Constitution Order 2009.

So that’s it then, isn’t it? If the territory is ‘St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha’ then our island must be ‘St Helena’.

But hold on a minute. The title page of the same document announces that it is:

The Constitution of St. Helena, Ascension and Tristan Da Cunha

And in fact, scanning the Constitution document (as issued by the Government of St Helena), we discover that four terms are actually used to refer to our island:

Only ‘St. Helena Island’ (or ‘St Helena Island’, or ‘Saint Helena Island’) is not used at all.

So the issued version of our most fundamental document is not consistent!

Does it matter?

Perhaps the only reason why it would truly matter is that we are not the only place in the world named after Saint Helena.

If you do a search on Google™ for ‘Saint Helena’ (or ‘St Helena’, or ‘St. Helena’ - Google™ isn’t fussy) you will discover:

…and probably a few others. And don’t get us started on the world’s many other non-place ‘St Helena’s… St Helena’s Caravan Park in Leeds, UK, for example? Then there are the many ‘Helena’s, like Helena, Arkansas, USA.

It would be nice if each of these had a unique name. For one thing it would make searching for St Helena information on the Internet more reliable - we find the best search string to be:

Saint helena [subject] -california -napa -carolina -queensland -melbourne

…which is rather a lot to type! If you have other suggestions please contact us.

And the answer is…

SHG crest

Despite the inconsistencies in the issued document, Paragraph 4 on page 2 of our Constitution is definitive, so as far as we are concerned, that’s the answer: St Helena.

On this site we have tried to be consistent, using ‘St Helena’ throughout except where we have reproduced articles{3}. But then as the disclaimer says at the bottom of the page:

PS: St. Helena, Saint Helena or St Helena - it’s the same unique place!


The commonest abbreviations for St. Helena are ‘STHL’ (the first part of our postcode: STHL 1ZZ{4}); or ‘SH’, which happens to be our Internet Country code top-level domain. ‘STH’ is also used, but more rarely. ‘HLE’, our Airport’s IATA Airport Code{5}, is also rarely used (except, of course, in aviation).

Maybe we should adopt another name entirely?

On 7th April 1862 a meeting in Jamestown decided to convey to Queen Victoria the islanders’ wish that St Helena be renamed Prince Albert Island in honour of Queen Victoria’s recently deceased husband, though their wish never actually reached the Queen as objections from members of the clergy caused it to be withdrawn.

In January 2016 this website received by email the suggestion that we should adopt as our island’s name a variation that has not, to our knowledge, been used before. We reproduce the email below for your interest. If you have any comments on this please contact us.

I have visited your webpage sainthelenaisland.info and find your articles very intriguing and interesting. The article about the official name of the island (‘OUR ISLAND’s NAME - what, exactly, is it?’) is one such fascinating piece.

May I make a suggestion to you as an outsider? Please do not take exception, I am merely making a lighthearted suggestion, with no ill intent. But should you (and the rest of the islanders) like it, you can take all the credit for it:

What about - the Isle of Saint Helena, as the full official name?

My reasons are as follows:

(1) When you abbreviate ‘saint’ it is very easy to forget or miss the period or full stop after the ‘t’. It is also better and more formal to type / write ‘saint’ in full instead of abbreviating it.

(2) Since I am so hooked on this marvelous island, I have had the same problem when seeking internet information about the island, without getting random results of other locations with similar place-names, from the U.S.A., Australia and South Africa etc.

(3) Due to the inherent British culture, the islanders strong loyalty to the British monarch and heritage, the long history of direct influence from the U.K. Government, and the fact that most islands around the U.K. are officially referred to as ‘isle’, as in the Isle of Wight, Isle of Skye, Isle of Man etc. - Even the U.K. is also known as the British Isles.

(4) Upon researching the etymological difference between ‘isle’ and ‘island’ I find an interesting explanation, that I am pasting here for your perusal (extract from english.stackexchange.com/‌questions/‌131805/‌isle-vs-island):

In practice, there is no difference, they can be used interchangeably but isle is archaic. Anything called isle can also be referred to as an island.
island (n.)1590s, earlier yland (c.1300), from Old English igland ‘island,’ from ieg ‘island’ (from Proto-Germanic *aujo ‘thing on the water,’ from PIE *akwa- ‘water;’ see aqua-) + land ‘land.’ Spelling modified 15c. by association with similar but unrelated isle. An Old English cognate was ealand ‘river-land, watered place, meadow by a river.’ In place names, Old English ieg is often used of ‘slightly raised dry ground offering settlement sites in areas surrounded by marsh or subject to flooding’ [Cambridge Dictionary of English Place-Names]. Related: Islander.
isle (n.)late 13c., from Old French ile, earlier isle, from Latin insula ‘island,’ of uncertain origin, perhaps (as the Ancients guessed) from in salo ‘(that which is) in the sea,’ from ablative of salum ‘the open sea.’ The -s- was restored first in French, then in English in the late 1500s. Poetic except when cap. and part of place name; an island, esp a small one

So ‘isle’ has the same meaning, just more poetic (it is a monosyllabic word), more often used with small islands. As for geographic names - they were named like that at some time, so someone chose ‘isle’ over ‘island’ while naming them.

I know that ‘isle’ is usually reserved for the islands in the U.K. territorial waters, but since the French also make use of basically the same word, ‘ile’ as in Ile Maurice (a.k.a. Mauritius), and bearing in mind that the French leader Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, it makes even more sense.

Then in your extract from Galvano’s ‘Discoveries of the world’, published in 1601, on page 98 it reads achram a ilha aque poseram nome de santa Elena, ‘ilha’ can also be translated from Portuguese into ‘isle’. A good example of this point is Ilha de Moçambique, directly translated means Isle of Mozambique.

(5) If you consider Island of Saint Helena vs Isle of Saint Helena, it even looks softer on the eye, and phonically it sounds much better. Besides, there is just a lot more islands than isles

In conclusion, a subtle change in wording could make a very unique name, without changing anything really about the essence of Saint Helena and / or its identity. This is a one-of-a-kind tropical (/sub-tropical) island (it is further North than both Mauritius and Reunion, which is considered tropical), without the (mundane and) stereotypical image of white / creamy sandy beaches and coconut palm trees.

Now that the airport is nearing its completion, and the main reason for its construction is to boost the economy through tourism, detail is everything. In the tourism industry, which become more and more competitive, you have set the bar higher than the competition. Tourist are lured to visit a venue, place, country etc., not only due to good service, nice scenery and pleasant atmosphere, but providing some experience so unique it can be found nowhere else on earth. That experience starts with the name…

Let this island bear a name worthy of its legacy!

What do you think? Just pondering…

I hope you (or any Saint) were not offended in anyway whatsoever. My sincere apologies if you were. I know some people are very sensitive. I only had good intentions with this writing.
Kind regards

We put this idea to the Tourist Information Office. They said it would cost millions to rebrand…, which we take as No.

Name of this site

We call this site Saint Helena Island Info. Why not ‘St Helena Island Info’? There’s no real reason - we just didn’t!

Read More

Article: Toponymy

From the Wikipedia, retrieved 15th October 2014{6}

Genuine place name
Genuine road sign (see also some others; and we also have a page on this site called ‘Zzyzx’)

Toponymy is the study of place names (toponyms), their origins, meanings, use and typology.

Toponym is the general term for any place or geographical entity. Related, more specific types of toponym include hydronym for a body of water and oronym for a mountain or hill. A toponymist is one who studies toponymy.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘toponymy’ first appeared in English in 1876; since then, toponym has come to replace ‘place-name’ in professional discourse among geographers. It can be argued that the first toponymists were the storytellers and poets who explained the origin of specific place names as part of their tales; sometimes place-names served as the basis for the etiological legends. The process of folk etymology usually took over, whereby a false meaning was extracted from a name based on its structure or sounds. Thus, the toponym of Hellespont was explained by Greek poets as being named after Helle, daughter of Athamas, who drowned there as she crossed it with her brother Phrixus on a flying golden ram. The name, however, is probably derived from an older language, such as Pelasgian, which was unknown to those who explained its origin. George R. Stewart theorized, in his book ‘Names on the Globe’, that Hellespont originally meant something like ‘narrow Pontus’ or ‘entrance to Pontus’, ‘Pontus’ being an ancient name for the region around the Black Sea, and by extension, for the sea itself.

Place names provide the most useful geographical reference system in the world. Consistency and accuracy are essential in referring to a place to prevent confusion in everyday business and recreation. A toponymist, through well-established local principles and procedures developed in cooperation and consultation with the United Nations Group of Experts on Geographical Names (UNGEGN), applies the science of toponymy to establish officially recognized geographical names. A toponymist relies not only on maps and local histories, but interviews with local residents to determine names with established local usage. The exact application of a toponym, its specific language, its pronunciation, and its origins and meaning are all important facts to be recorded during name surveys.

Scholars have found that toponyms provide valuable insight into the historical geography of a particular region. In 1954 F. M. Powicke said of place-name study that it uses, enriches and tests the discoveries of archaeology and history and the rules of the philologists. Toponyms not only illustrate ethnic settlement patterns, but they can also help identify discrete periods of immigration.

Toponymists are responsible for the active preservation of their region’s culture through its toponymy. They typically ensure the ongoing development of a geographical names data base and associated publications, for recording and disseminating authoritative hard-copy and digital toponymic data. This data may be disseminated in a wide variety of formats, including hard-copy topographic maps as well as digital formats such as geographic information systems and Google Maps™.

You might also want to check out some of the unusual names we have for places on St. Helena.

We also have a page called zzyzx.


{a} William Shakespeare, in ‘Romeo and Juliet’{b} William Berry, London


{1} Search on Google Maps™ for Anthony Beale Reserve and see also en.wikipedia.org/‌wiki/‌St‌_‌Helena,‌_‌Victoria.{2} The four ‘Wirebird’ publications should not be confused.{3} If you spot anywhere that we’ve slipped up, please contact us.{4} Yes, we only need a single postcode for the entire island!{5} The three-letter code that appears on all your boarding passes and luggage labels.{6} @@RepDis@@{7} Of course, there are probably many ‘St Helena Road’s, most probably named after the mother of Emperor Constantine, but we know this one is named after our St Helena because the area used to be the site of the ‘St Helena Tea-Gardens’, an open space where people could sit and sip their tea while contemplating nature, named in the early 19th Century after our island because of our (then) military importance. The tea garden seems to have been replaced by housing sometime around the beginning of the 20th Century, with only the road name remaining. For more see ‘Wirebird’, the magazine of Friends of St Helena{2} #33, Autumn 2006.