What’s In a Name? Meaning of Place Names in Greenland


Do you ever wonder how places get their names?

In Greenland, places usually get their names based on the natural features that characterize the area. It is a true testament to the intertwined relationship between Greenlanders and the powerful nature they live in and love. This is also why many places have the same name. For example, study a good map of Greenland and count how many Uummannaqs and Qeqertaqs you find 🙂

The nature-based Greenlandic names are like a code to decipher, and once you know the key it makes perfect sense! For example, Natural Feature + Size of Feature = Place Name. It is far more fascinating than reading European names all the time.

The four municipalities in Greenland undertook the goal to map all the place names in Greenland. Researchers or very inquisitive people might like to try navigating their interactive yet technical sites:

North Greenland, Mid Greenland, Southwest Greenland/East Greenland, South Greenland.

In an anthropocentric world, places are usually named after the people who ‘discovered’ them. This happened in Greenland’s relatively recent history as European whalers, Scandinavian Vikings, and Danish colonists came up. Claushavn… Jakobshavn… Julianehåb… the list goes on. These are the names that places received as Europeans began arriving to Greenland after Inuit had been thriving here on their own for nearly 3500 years.

Fortunately, in my opinion, the Greenlandic names prevail today!

So if you, too, are wondering how places in Greenland get their names, here’s a small glossary of place names in Greenland. (And if you are interested in knowing the meaning of personal names in Greenland, see Oqaasileriffik, the Language Secretariat).

Meaning of Place Names in Greenland:

Kallaallit Nunaat / Inuit Nunaat = the lands of Greenlanders / the lands of people (Greenland’s name)

Sermersuaq = large glacier (Greenland Ice Sheet)

Qaasuitsoq = place of polar darkness (Municipality of North Greenland)

Avannaa = north (area of North Greenland between Kangaatsiaq and Qaanaaq)

Avanersuaq = great north (area of North Greenland between Qaanaaq and North Pole)

Qeqqa = in the middle (Municipality of Arctic Circle Region)

Sermersooq = has many glaciers (Municipality of Capital Region and East Greenland)

Kujalleq = south (Municipality of South Greenland)

Pituffik = mooring place, place to tie something (village in North Greenland that originally stood where US Thule Air Base now stands)

Upernavik = springtime place (town in North Greenland)

Uummannaq = like a heart (town in North Greenland)

Illorsuit = place with large buildings (village in North Greenland)

Ikerasak = place with a channel (village in North Greenland)

Niaqornat = place shaped like a head (village in North Greenland)

Nuussuaq = large peninsula (distinctive land formation in North Greenland)

Qeqertarsuaq = large island (town in North Greenland; distinctive island off west coast of Greenland)

Kangerluk = fjord (village in North Greenland)

Itinneq Kangilleq = eastern area between fjords (land formation near Qeqertarsuaq in North Greenland)

Oqaatsut = cormorants (village in North Greenland)

Saqqaq = shiny side, sunny side (village in North Greenland)

Ilulissat = icebergs (town in North Greenland)

Sermermiut = people that live near the glacier (ancient village in North Greenland outside of Ilulissat)

Sermeq Kujalleq = southern glacier (Ilulissat Glacier at UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Aasiaat = place with spiders (town in North Greenland)

Qasigiannguit = playful seals (town in North Greenland)

Sisimiut = the people that live near the place with fox dens (town in Arctic Circle Region)

Kangerlussuaq = large fjord (village in Arctic Circle Region)

Maniitsoq = bumpy, uneven (town in Arctic Circle Region)

Nuuk = peninsula (capital city, located in Capital Region)

Akia = land on the other side (land formation near Nuuk)

Quassussuaq = large ridge (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Lille Malene)

Ukkusissat = soapstones (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Store Malene)

Sermitsiaq = has had glaciers before (mountain in Nuuk)

Kingittorsuaq = stands very tall; has very high elevation (mountain in Nuuk, commonly called Hjortetakken)

Qooroq / Qooqqut = valley / valleys (good fishing spot and a place with huts & restaurant inside Nuuk Fjord)

Kapisilik = place with salmon (place with huts inside Nuuk Fjord)

Qeqertarsuatsiaat = quite big island (village in Capital Region)

Paamiut = the people that live at the mouth, a reference to the nearby fjord (town in Capital Region)

Narsaq = plain, low area (town in South Greenland)

Narsarsuaq = large plain, low area (village in South Greenland)

Qaqortoq = white (town in South Greenland)

Nanortalik = place with polar bears (town in South Greenland)

Ammassalik = place with capelin (old name of town in East Greenland now called Tasiilaq)

Tasiilaq = place with a lake (new name of town in East Greenland formerly called Ammassalik)

Sermilik = place with glaciers (distinctive fjord in East Greenland)


Eating Green in Greenland

Arctic food debunked

The Arctic diet is often under great scrutiny. Comedian Ellen DeGeneres recently funded anti-seal hunting organizations, U.S. President Barack Obama is urging Iceland to cease its whaling practices, and the official Instagram feed of National Geographic has blown up more than a few times with criticism over photos of hunting in East Greenland.

Despite what the media show, food in Greenland is not all about seal hunting and whale hunting. In fact, fruits and vegetables of all kinds are available here.

Ambassador for healthy and happy eating

May is “Make May Healthy” month with initiatives of relay running races, healthy food tastings in the mall, and the like, but there’s one particular Greenlander who wants a focus on healthy eating habits and physical activity to carry through the entire year.

Anne Nivíka Grødem, the Greenlandic Food Lover, takes the healthy lifestyle past her own kitchen and shares it with all in Greenland. She has come with a new cookbook with recipes for frozen vegetables, a blog, and a Facebook group, all in 2015. Read more here about this ambassador for a healthy and happy relationship with food.

Lead by example

Meet one Greenlander (@hannekirkegaard83) who puts these principles to the test and makes my mouth water every single day with her photos of delicious homemade meals chock-full of green stuff! Are you surprised to see such variety in Greenland?

Homemade chicken soup with carrots, cabbage, leeks, spring onions, Greenlandic shrimp, garlic, chili, lemongrass, coriander, and lime leaf.Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 10.58.54 PM

Arugula salad with bell peppers, cranberries, sunflower seeds, fresh basil and basil oil. Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 10.23.36 PM

Vanilla custard with macaroon and Greenlandic paarnat (crowberries, in English).Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 11.04.37 PM

Homemade fish soup with fresh parsley.Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 11.03.50 PM

Homemade pizza with mozzarella, fresh basil, and pepperoni.Screen Shot 2014-04-11 at 10.55.41 PM

If these shots by @hannekirkegaard83 whet your palate, just wait until you see her homemade desserts!


For a bite-size lesson on the Greenlandic diet, read about food in Greenland and challenges with Greenland’s food industry below.

What does one eat in Greenland?

The diet in Greenland is a mixture of native Greenlandic foods and imported Danish & international foods. 

From Greenland, there are 3 main categories of foods, and they are all protein. Their common preparations are drying and smoking.

  1. Land species. Primarily reindeer and muskox. Also lamb, snow hare, ptarmigan, and many bird species. (Also blueberry, crowberry, and lingonberry.)
  2. Sea mammals. Primarily seal and certain species of small whales. Polar bear is also eaten, but its consumption is much more regional than other sea mammals.
  3. Seafood (Fish & Shellfish). SO many choices like halibut, redfish, trout, cod, Arctic char, salmon, capelin, snow crab, shrimp, mussels, scallops, and even caviar (lumpfish roe).

As a traveler, one’s best bet for tasting many Greenlandic foods is to eat at a Greenlandic buffet or try a Greenlandic tasting menu out at a restaurant. The courses will come one after another, and the presentation is usually quite impressive. Here are a few dishes, for example, from two different dinners at Sarfalik at Hotel Hans Egede in Nuuk.

Left: Crowberry sorbet with sourdough breadcrumbs and chocolate igloo; Top Right: Greenlandic lamb from Narsaq with whipped parsnip; Bottom Right: smoked halibut from Ilulissat with a candied egg yolk (March 2015)


Left: Dried seal; Top Right: smoked Greenlandic salmon tartare two ways; Bottom Right: Greenlandic scallop with pea puree and seaweed cake (April 2015)

From Denmark and elsewhere, there are all the foods you could find in any grocery store in the world. (But, availability and variety are related to town size. Nuuk [the capital city] and other towns like Sisimiut, Ilulissat, and Qaqortoq are very well stocked. As you get into the smaller towns and villages, the selection becomes more limited.)

  1. Carbohydrates & Grains. Especially dark rye bread (rugbrød), baguettes, buns, full grain cereals, müsli, and many others.
  2. Fruits & Vegetables. It’s all imported, but you can find pretty much anything you want, save a few items. I’m not sure I have ever found an avocado?
  3. Saturated fats like cured meats, sausages, tons of cheeses, and paté.
  4. Dairy. Yogurt, milk, cheese. Even Icelandic Skyr.
  5. Sweets. Think of any dessert you have ever dreamed of, and it is here, but especially Danish pastries and anything with marzipan filling! And literally 30 varieties of Haribo candy 🙂

What are the challenges with the food industry in Greenland?

  1. Agriculture is virtually non-existent. There is very little arable soil in Greenland, so Greenland relies heavily on imported goods. The suitable soil that does exist is all in South Greenland, and farms are working toward growing fruit & vegetable crops for domestic distribution (like potatoes, strawberries, and lettuces, and there is even small-batch honey being made)! BUT at this time, there is not enough yield to support even the small Greenland population of 57,000 or the 60,000 annual tourists, so imports remain the largest food source.
  2. Greenland is an island. Every item that Greenland imports must come in via airplane or container ship.
  3. There is no domestic ground transportation. With no roads between towns and villages, every item that Greenland imports must also be distributed throughout the country via airplane or container ship. There are over 70 inhabited areas in Greenland, and many of them are inaccessible by boat for part of the year due to a frozen sea. For example, the East Greenland town of Ittoqqortoormiit (population: 444) receives only a few shipments by boat a year; the rest of the deliveries must be made by air. By the end of winter, you can imagine the residents are in dire need of variety and freshness! Nuuk’s shipment situation is not so drastic, but the wish for fresh ingredients remains. Check out my friend’s excitement to receive a bag of fresh lettuce as a housewarming gift!
  4. Food is expensive… because of #1-3. Not to mention, Greenland’s food imports are coming primarily from Denmark and Scandinavia, widely known as some of the most expensive countries in the world.

Arctic Circle Race 2014 – Cross Country Skiing in Greenland

(See all official participant results here.)

ACR-start 2

Ready… steady… GO!

This morning (12:00 GMT on Friday 4 April 2014), 150+ sportsmen and sportswomen from 16 nations pushed off the starting line in Sisimiut, Greenland to start Arctic Circle Race 2014! For the next 3 days /2 nights, competitors complete 160 km / 99 miles of physically and mentally challenging marathon cross country skiing through Sisimiut’s backcountry.

Though a few Olympians fresh from Sochi and other world class athletes are present in Sisimiut, the Arctic Circle Race is much more than just a high profile sports event. It is something that brings true pride, happiness, and unity to the entire community of Sisimiut! Here, the Hotel Manager of Hotel Sisimiut describes what the Arctic Circle Race means to Sisimiut residents (translated from Danish):

“ACR is a state of mind!

Over the years, many Sisimiut residents have been involved in the race, either as runners or as volunteers, some for a few years other from the very start, and all deserve a huge thank you. Some have become tired in voluntary work and others are still as enthusiastic and loving it – but all feel something very special today.

It is ACR Day.

ACR is a kind of glue. Such a … glue that binds us together as citizens of Sisimiut. ACR represents the way we want to see ourselves and our fellow citizens. It’s about volunteering, pride, resilience, organization, international standing, but most of all, it is about UNITY. Together we can lift a major project that none of us could do alone.
There is a lot of money put into ACR from sponsors and the municipality, and it is a good investment. But, the community’s ACR spirit and unity is unique and can not be bought with money.

Sisimiut and the Arctic Circle Race, YOU did it ….. AGAIN!”

As testament to the unity and camaraderie the Arctic Circle Race creates, yesterday the competitors, volunteers, and Sisimiut residents all paraded to an opening ceremony & service together at the church in Sisimiut:

ACR-pretrip ceremony

Here’s the starting line today:

ACR - race start

Think their adrenaline is pumping hard enough?

ACR - evi kreutzmann

And they’re off! The first few meters / feet of the next 160 km / 99 miles:

ACR-race start 2

And at the end of the day, when all the competitors want is a warm shower and bed, this is the camp where they will sleep and get ready to do it all again tomorrow!


The latest updates from Arctic Circle Race base camp (18:00 GMT):

Screen Shot 2014-04-04 at 1.59.20 PMScreen Shot 2014-04-04 at 2.05.01 PM

For more information & photos and to follow all the action in real time, see the official ACR website or Facebook page.

All photos credit: Arctic Circle Race – ACR Facebook page

Greenland-isms: Life in Greenland through American Eyes

Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 8.09.54 AM

Photo credit: Kunuk Abelsen via Visit Greenland Flickr account

Geologically, Greenland is part of North America, but subterranean tectonic plates know nothing about cultural similarities and differences! If you only visit Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, you would conclude that Greenland is more European than North American. (You can thank the Danes for that.) If you visit smaller towns and villages along the coast, particularly in North and East Greenland, you would probably say that Greenland is like no other place you have seen before, and that it has an identity all its own.

This piece focuses on the differences between Greenland and the United States because they are what I love about the country. Why travel to a foreign land just to get more of the same thing you know from back home? These differences are what hooked me from the very start, and they are what bring me back to Greenland again and again. Some are just facts of life, some are fun and silly, and some are monumental. If I had to boil it all down into a nutshell, I would say this: Greenlanders take time to enjoy life and their loved ones; they don’t let life pass them by.

You can be the judge when you visit, but here’s a list of Greenland-isms I noticed after only a short time in Greenland (in no particular order).


  1. Use of the Metric System (and Celsius). This came as no surprise to me since 98.5% of the world’s countries use these systems. But the United States of America is not one of them, so Americans better study up on their metric-to-imperial and Celsius-to-Fahrenheit conversions or else download a nifty conversion app, otherwise you might find yourself at a loss ordering a cold one or checking the weather!
  2. Localvore = Carnivore. A localvore is someone who wants everything they eat to be fresh, organic, and wholesome and to come from an 80 km / 50 mi radius, give or take. It’s a ‘new’ craze that started on the west coast and is slowly creeping into mainstream America. Greenlanders are the original localvores, but only because they are also carnivores. Farming is simply not possible because a permafrost Ice Sheet covers 80% of Greenland, and the terrain that is exposed is primarily rock. Meat and fish are the only local items here, save a few small farms in South Greenland experimenting with crops like potatoes, strawberries, and even beekeeping. (Just so you know, every fruit and vegetable and dry good you would ever want IS available in Greenland, but it is imported.)
  3. Use of chip-and-pin cards. All of Greenland’s credit card machines are set primarily for chip-and-pin cards. Most of them are able to accept American cards without pin codes, but some vendors and cashier clerks are more knowledgable about the process than others. To be safest, only use cards with pin codes – i.e. debit cards. If you must use credit cards, be sure to call your bank well in advance of your trip and set up a pin code for the card. Otherwise, exchange cash for Danish Kroner before your trip or visit an ATM once you arrive.


  1. Hygge is religion. Hygge (pronounced HOO-gah) is best translated to “coziness” in English. It is the art of being totally happy and content and heart-warmed by your surroundings, whether it is curling up on the couch with your dearest and good wine, watching a film with lots of popcorn and candy, or sitting around a dinner table with your close friends and laughing until your cheeks hurt. Many Greenlanders will prefer weekend hygge while Americans will opt for going out to restaurants and bars for entertainment.
  2. Work/Home Balance & Sanctity of Holiday. My hunch is that this ‘phenomenon’ exists everywhere but the United States. There’s no other way to put it than when Greenlanders are at home, they are 100% focused on their loved ones. If I could make a Venn Diagram of work life and home life, it would just look like 2 circles with no overlap. Of course there are busy days, but they are more of an exception than a rule. Add to this 6 weeks of paid time off, 6 months of paid maternity leave, and even paid paternity leave, and you’ve got plenty of evidence that this a culture that values a healthy balance of professional and personal life. Juxtapose that to Americans who get a few weeks of holiday if they are lucky, feel guilty about it, and still answer work emails while sitting on a white sandy beach.
  3. There is a Circle of Trust. It is not uncommon to see children running around or to see babies asleep in prams outside, seemingly unattended. The uptight and xenophobic American might go as far as calling that child neglect, but really it is just a sign of small communities that feel comfortable around their fellow countrymen. It is downright refreshing, to be honest!
  4. There’s no such thing as bad weather. Is it pouring rain outside? Is there a meter (3 feet) of snow on the ground? Is it -25*C (-13*F) outside? Doesn’t matter. Maybe air traffic will get delayed, but life on the ground in Greenland doesn’t stop because of a little bad weather. People still walk their dogs, wait at the bus stop, go on runs, and carry on with life as usual.
  5. Office culture. There are so many points to note here about idea-sharing, respect, and productivity, but really it’s the tangible elements that are most different from the United States. 1) Floor plan: Greenland is fond of the open floor plan with many peoples’ desks in one room. Why have small, anti-social cubicles when you could see each other’s beautiful smiling faces?! 2) Lunch time: The occasional café lunch date is fun, but usually Greenlanders stay at their own offices to eat – but certainly not at their desks. Offices have their own full kitchens and dining rooms to eat in, and everyone sits down together like one big happy family. The larger offices even have their own canteens/cafeterias/chefs.
  6. Possessions are cared for with the utmost attention. Everything is expensive in Greenland. Everything. Single cucumbers are $5+, iPhones are $900, shoes and clothing are 2-3x the price as in the United States, and you don’t even want to think about the Internet prices. Not only are items expensive, but also they are not in endless supply. In smaller towns and villages, if something is out of stock on the shelves, it could be a week or more before the container ship comes with replenishment. Therefore, Greenlanders do understand how to care for their possessions and conserve a bit.


  1. Coffee is religion. There are three rules. 1) No time is a bad time for coffee. 2) It only comes in strong, stronger, and strongest. 3) Anything other than french press is heresy. Also, coffee time here is not the quick Starbucks grab n’ go style like in the United States. For the record, Starbucks does not even exist in Greenland. Instead, it is a whole experience with espresso machines, fancy glassware, stylish french presses, and sealskin cozies – even at home!
  2. Licorice is also religion. Licorice tea, licorice hard candy, licorice ice cream, you name it! In all honesty, this one might be THE hardest for Americans to grasp. In the airport I once heard an American squeal, “What is it with you people and licorice!?” I laughed to myself as I silently chewed licorice gum. Lady, I admit that I, too, was once a licorice-hater, but that was before I tasted the good stuff. Now I’m hooked!
  3. Clothes dryers are not in fashion. Many people don’t even own a dryer, but even the one’s that do still prefer to hang clothes on a drying rack. And sometimes the drying rack goes outside on the terrace (or hung on the outside of the railing), even in cold temperatures!

And, finally, there are products and items that just look different:

  • Parents push babies/children in something that looks more like a flat-bed pram than a stroller with a seat.
  • Condiment bottles like ketchup, mustard, and pommes frites sauce (which Americans know as Ranch Dressing) don’t have screw tops but rather a tiny cap that never comes detached from the bottle.
  • Toilets have 1 large button split into 2 parts – a small side and a large side. You can take a wild guess what the difference is.
  • Sidewalks are not raised or colored differently. You just have to know that to the right of the light post is the sidewalk and to the left of the light post is the road. And that sometimes a car or bus will pull up on the sidewalk right behind you to pick up a passenger.
  • No tea kettles or pots of water on the stove here. The norm is to boil water (for hot drinks or for cooking) in an electric water boiler. It’s faster and cheaper.
  • Don’t look for street names on signposts in this country. Instead, they are affixed to the sides of nearby buildings. By the same token, don’t look for many traffic lights either!

So there you have it – 18 ways that Greenland is totally unique from the United States, and better for it, despite sharing the “North American” label 🙂