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The word Melayu is thought to derive from the Sanskrit term Malaiur or Malayadvipa which can be translated as "land of mountains", the word used by ancient Indian traders when referring to the Malay Peninsula. Other theories propose it originates from the Tamil word "Malai", meaning mountain.The term was later used as the name of the Melayu Kingdom, which existed between the 7th and the 13th centuries on Sumatra.

Following his 1826 expedition in Oceania, French navigator Jules Dumont d'Urville invented the terms Malaysia, Micronesia and Melanesia, distinguishing these Pacific cultures and island groups from the already existing term Polynesia. In 1831, he proposed these terms to The Société de Géographie. Dumont d'Urville described Malaysia as "an area commonly known as the East Indies". In 1850, the English ethnologist George Samuel Windsor Earl, writing in the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, proposed naming the islands of Southeast Asia as Melayunesia or Indunesia, favouring the former.

In 1957, the Federation of Malaya was declared as an independent federation of the Malay states on the Malay Peninsula. The name "Malaysia" was adopted in 1963 when the existing states of the Federation of Malaya, plus Singapore, North Borneo and Sarawak formed a new federation, with "si" being added to Malaya in honour of the three joining states. Prior to that, the name itself had been used to refer to the whole Malay Archipelago. Politicians in the Philippines once contemplated naming their state "Malaysia", but in 1963 Malaysia adopted the name first. At the time of the 1963 federation, other names were considered: among them was Langkasuka, after the historic kingdom located at the upper section of the Malay Peninsula in the first millennium of the common era.


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