The name means “eastern realm” and was used for the eastern lands in the Lombard Kingdom in northern Italy and for the eastern Frankish kingdom of the Merovingian era. Merovingian Austria is now usually called Austrasia to distinguish it from the later power.
By 996 the old name had revived and was being used for the Ostmark, the eastern frontier zone of Bavaria. It then consisted of much of the territory of the present Land of Niederösterreich, but later expanded to include the rest of that Land and its western neighbour, Oberösterreich (see AUSTRIA ~ Duchy and Archduchy).
In 1282 the Duchy of Austria was granted by Rudolf I to his two sons. Their family is known as the Habsburgs, from their comital title, itself derived from a castle, now in Switzerland, but as Austria had become their most important dominion the family also called themselves the House of Austria (Haus Österreich; Maison d’Autriche; Casa de Austria). Their hereditary possessions within the Holy Roman Empire came to use the Austrian name though some of them were far from the original Duchy. So there were at times groups of territories called Niederösterreich, Oberösterreich, Innenösterreich and Vorderösterreich – Lower, Upper, Inner and Further Austria. These together constituted the Erblande – the hereditary lands – of the family (see AUSTRIA ~ Hereditary Lands).
But the Habsburgs also acquired other territories within and beyond the Holy Roman Empire. Although the head of the family (or at least of its Austrian branch) was the Holy Roman Emperor for almost all the last three centuries and a half of the Empire’s existence, it had become clear in the 17th century that his importance upon the European stage was not so much as Emperor as ruler of the dynastic lands of his family. He was Archduke of Austria, King of Hungary, King of Bohemia and many other titles as well. Some short way of referring to him and his lands as a collectivity was desirable though none could be accurate, even loosely speaking. Austria, though not his highest title – it was not even royal – was at the hub of his power. The Archduchy lay within the German realm and upon the River Danube. So the great power of central Europe in the later 17th and 18th centuries was, and is, called Austria for convenience.
In the early years of the 19th century it was increasingly clear that the Holy Roman Empire was doomed. The last Emperor ensured that he would continue to hold the Imperial title by making himself Emperor of Austria in 1804. Austria had come to mean the collected realms of the head of the House of Habsburg. (See HABSBURG LANDS link_to_follow)
Austria acquired another extensive, though less complete, meaning later in the century, after the Compromise of 1867 when the Austrian Empire was divided between two domestic governments, one for the Kingdom of Hungary and one for the Kingdoms & Lands represented in the Imperial Council. Colloquially, the latter was known as Austria; officially so, in the last days of the Empire. (See AUSTRIA ~ CISLEITHANIA).
Since 1918 Austria has been the name of a sovereign state in central Europe, the Republic of Austria. (See AUSTRIA ~ Republic).