One great resource for the historian of American English is A Dictionary of Americanisms, by John Russell Bartlett. Published in 1848, the book bore the subtitle A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States. On p. 138, Bartlett quoted from a then-recent book about the German city of Heidelberg in order to describe a certain custom:
German viel, pronounced like English feel, means ‘much, very.’ Liebchen, related to English love, is a diminutive that we might translate as ‘dear, darling, sweetheart.’ Now, English speakers in the 1800s who didn’t know any German but heard the German term Vielliebchen did their best to match it up to something in English. The result, according to Bartlett, was:
The first version of the English “translation” is a folksy rendering of Philippine, while the second corresponds to Spanish filipina—but notice how the Ph of Philippine got respelled as an f, and how the f of Spanish filipina appeared as a Ph.
Although the Philippines didn’t pass from Spanish to American control until the Spanish-American War of 1898, Americans half a century earlier still apparently found the Philippines the closest thing they could associate with the otherwise meaningless (to them) German Vielliebchen.
It was more than three centuries earlier than Bartlett’s Dictionary, in 1521, that the Portuguese navigator Fernão de Magalhães, whose family name Spaniards transformed to Magallanes, led a Spanish expedition half-way around the world to a group of islands south of Taiwan and northeast of Borneo. On one of those islands, Mactan, Magellan had a run-in with a local chief named Lapu-Lapu, who dispatched Magellan to a world from which there is no return; surviving members of his crew did manage to finish the circumnavigation of the globe and return to Spain.* Later the Spaniards colonized the archipelago where Magellan died, eventually naming it the Filipinas/Philippines, in honor of the man who became the Spanish king Felipe II.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman
*I was incorrectly taught in elementary school that Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the globe.