The island has been known by various names:
The name Papua was used to refer to parts of the island before contact with the West. Its etymology is unclear; one theory states that it derived from Tidore, the language used by the Sultanate of Tidore, which controlled parts of the island's coastal region. The name apparently comes from the words papo (to unite) and ua (negation), which means "not united" or, "territory that geographically is far away (and thus not united)".
Ploeg reports that the word papua is often said to be derived from the Malay word papua or pua-pua, meaning "frizzly-haired", referring to the highly curly hair of the inhabitants of these areas. Another possibility, put forward by Sollewijn Gelpke in 1993, is that it comes from the Biak phrase sup i papwa which means 'the land below [the sunset]' and refers to the islands west of the Bird's Head, as far as Halmahera. Whatever its origin, the name Papua came to be associated with this area, and more especially with Halmahera, which was known to the Portuguese by this name during the era of their colonization in this part of the world.
When the Portuguese and Spanish explorers arrived in the island via the Spice Islands, they also referred to the island as Papua. However, the name New Guinea was later used by Westerners starting with the Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez in 1545, referring to the similarities of the indigenous people's appearance with the natives of the Guinea region of Africa. The name is one of several toponyms sharing similar etymologies, ultimately meaning "land of the blacks" or similar meanings, in reference to the dark skin of the inhabitants.
The Dutch, who arrived later under Jacob Le Maire and Willem Schouten, called it Schouten island, but later this name was used only to refer to islands off the north coast of Papua proper, the Schouten Islands or Biak Island. When the Dutch colonized it as part of Netherlands East Indies, they called it Nieuw Guinea.
The name Irian was used in the Indonesian language to refer to the island and Indonesian province, as "Irian Jaya Province". The name was promoted in 1945 by Marcus Kaisiepo, brother of the future governor Frans Kaisiepo. It is taken from the Biak language of Biak Island, and means "to rise", or "rising spirit". Irian is the name used in the Biak language and other languages such as Serui, Merauke and Waropen. The name was used until 2001, when the name Papua was again used for the island and the province. The name Irian, which was originally favored by natives, is now considered to be a name imposed by the authority of Jakarta.