name changes

What were the names of many countries before they changed them?
All I’m familiar with is Formosa.

Siam => Thailand
Ceylon => Sri Lanka

I should have mentioned that Formosa is now Taiwan.

Burma -> Myanmar, although this name is controversial.
(Belgian) Congo -> Zaire -> Democratic Republic of the Congo

Does Ivory Coast -> Côte d’Ivoire count? It is considered the official name even in English.

Subsaharan Africa is full of them. Most recently, Zaire changed to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (as opposed to their nextdoor neighbor, the Republic of the Congo. They are unofficially called Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazaville for their respective capitals.) Bechuanaland became Botswana. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Southwest Africa became Namibia. (Some of these occurred simultaneously with some border shuffling.) Etc . . .


Speaking of controversial, how about Manchukuo?


Southern Rodesia -> Rhodesia -> Zimbabwe to be complete…

Also Nyasaland -> Malawi, Bechuanaland -> Botswana…

The Turkish government, having successfully renamed Constantinople as İstanbul and Smyrna as İzmir, now wants us to call their nation Türkiye. If so, they should include instructions on how to type the special character “ü.” Germans may have it on their keyboards, but Americans don’t.

The name of that big country in central Africa didn’t go directly from Belgian Congo to Zaire. Upon independence in 1960 it was named Democratic Republic of the Congo, then became Zaire for a while, and has now reverted to the original name.

After Kazakhstan became independent in 1991, they jiggered the spelling of its name --it was officially Kazakstan for a while in the 1990s–but then they put the -h- back in. All this time, I don’t think anyone even noticed the changes.

An awful lot of supposed “name changes” are simply the nation’s insistence on the use of the vernacular name, as opposed to a traditional English name usage that may not correspond to the local name. For example, the city that xash hails from has always been something that resembles Mumbai in Maharashtran, but for centuries was called Bombay in English, for reasons I don’t have at the tip of my fingers at present.

La Republica Dominicana, “Dominican Republic” in English, was for years known as “Santo Domingo,” the same name as its capital, and also an alternative name for the island on which it’s located, more commonly Hispaniola.

When British Guiana became independent, it adopted the name Guyana. When neigboring Dutch Guiana, sometimes called Surinam, followed suit, it adopted Suriname.

When the two small kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro united with each other and with the former possessions of Austria-Hungary that spoke south Slavic languages after World War I, they adopted the name “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” (which was equally mellifluous in Serbo-Croatian ;)), which was rapidly changed to Jugoslavija, with the J’s having the /y/ sound and more commonly rendered in English as Yugoslavia. This name survived until the recent breakup of Serbia and Montenegro. “Croatia” is an English borrowing, via German, of the local name Hrvatska – the apparent lack of relationship can be better understood if it’s realized that the initial H is fairly guttural, as in Hannukah, and that the local neckwear is what is known in English as a cravat. Crna Gora is Serbian for what Montenegro is Italian for, and both mean “black mountain,” after the high mountain fastness where they held out against the Turks at the height of the Ottoman conquest.

The nation known as Makedonija in Roman script and internationally using “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” calls itself that, in English, as a courtesy to neighboring Greece, which of course has a long historical connection to the land adjoining FYRMac on the south and also called Macedonia. Both the people now assimilated to Greece and the south Slavs share the name.

“Hungary” has always been the English term for the nation known in its own speech as “Magyarorzag.”

Romania was united in the 1800s from two principalities, Wallachia in the south and Moldavia in the east, both under nominal Turkish suzerainty until the union. Following World War I, it added in Transylvania, formerly a Hungarian possession, and Bessarabia, formerly Russian, the latter being north and east of Moldavia proper and also speaking a Moldavian dialect. After World War II, the Soviet Union recovered Bessarabia, and made it the Moldavian S.S.R. In the breakup of the USSR, that area became independent as Moldova.

Other interesting developments: “White Russia” was the area east of Poland, in Russian B’elorussia, with the apostrophe signaling palatalization, kind of an elided /y/ sound. After the Soviet breakup it became, in its own language, Belarus.

The area north of the Black Sea and Romania was always called “the Ukraine” – which means roughly “the southern steppes.” When it became independent, it adopted the name Ukraine, specifically omitting the “the” in English usage. More simply, the nation “Ukraine” occupies the land area formerly known as “the Ukraine” in English. (There’s a touch of prickliness about getting this right: with the English “the,” it’s a descriptor hung on it by the Russians; without it, it’s the name they adopted for themselves, redeeming it from the snide “south” of the Russians.)

“Persia” was the common English name for the nation now called “Iran” – but there’s a tale there. The people speak Iranian languages (with a couple of minorities excepted) and the term “Iran” is a unifier. “Persia” is a small region between the Zagros Mtns. and the Persian Gulf, from which came the Achaemenid dynasty that originally united the country and neighboring states into the first multinational empire in history. Typically, an Iranian feels about your calling his nation “Persia” much like a Scot or Welshman does about someone calling the United Kingdom “England.”

Burma was the name of the kingdom of the Burman people, which fell to the British Raj. The British extended “Burmah” over the entire region, to the displeasure of the Karens, the Chins, the Kachins, the Shans, and the other non-ethnic-Burman peoples. Myanmar, sometimes written and always pronounced Myanma, was adopted to replace “Burma” for reasons I’m not familiar with.

Thailand has always been Thailand to the Thais who live there. But for years it was “Siam” in English, helped out not a little by the cats and by Anna Leonowens’ book.

The Khmer people live in a nation that is variously known as Cambodia, Kampuchea, and the Khmer Republic. Polite usage is to find out what they’re using today and use it.

Many African nations, especially the former French colonies, ended up with names hung on them by colonialists, which they insist on rejecting in favor of a “homegrown” name. But occasionally the colonial name and language have become the standard usage and lingua franca respectively. A good example here is the nation sometimes called in English “Ivory Coast,” which is insistent on using the French “Cote d’Ivoire” as its name.

The former French territory of Haute-Volta, sometimes Englished as Upper Volta, calls itself Burkina Faso as an independent nation. Further south, the old English colony called “Gold Coast” adopted the name of the former kingdom of Ghana (which was actually further north, in and around Burkina Faso) as its name on gaining independence in 1956.

The former Dahomey adopted Benin. The former French Sudan also took an old kingdom name, Mali. The French Equatorial territory of Ubangi-Shari adopted the name Republique Africaine Centrale, usually Englished as Central African Republic.

The native kingdom of Kongo gave its name to the large river and then to two nations, one a former French colony and one formerly Belgian. The latter adopted the name Zaire.

German East Africa was given to the U.K. as a mandate after World War I, and was generally known as Tanganyika. On gaining independence, it merged with the offshore island republic of Zanzibar to form Tanzania.

The inland British possessions in south central Africa were united as the “Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland,” comprising Northern and Southern Rhodesia and the lands along Lake Nyasa. These respectively became Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi after independence.

The lands of the Tswana people (in some dialects Tchwana) were known as Bechuanaland to the British, but on independence adopted the name of their people with the proper prefix for “land of the” – Botswana. The south Sotho (formerly “Basuto”) people formerly lived in the enclave of Basutoland – which they similarly changed to Lesotho. Both the Sotho and the Romanians, by the way, use a vowel sound not common in English and halfway between “oh” and “oo” – causing -o- and -u- to be somewhat interchangeable in transliterating their nomenclature. Abp. Desmond Tutu was for some years Bishop of Lesotho, and used to refer to himself, with a twinkle in his eye, as “Tutu of Lesotho,” but as pronounced it rhymed – sort of “Tutu of Lesutu” as properly spoken.

Good post, Tom. Spelling nitpick – Hungary is Magyarország. Magyar is the people’s name for themselves, and ország means ‘nation’.

The most obvious, and most overlooked example:

England --> United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland


British Honduras --> Belize

Central African Republic --> Central African Empire --> Central African Republic

(I’m not Tom)

As far as I know, England still remains the area south of the Tweed and east of Offa’s Dyke, as it has been since Egbert’s day. For the record, though, the Kingdom of England was united with the Kingdom of Scotland, with which it had shared a monarch for 105 years (ignoring the Commonwealth and Protectorate interregnum), in 1707 to create the Kingdom of Great Britain. This in turn was united with the Kingdom of Ireland, which had also shared the same monarch for a significantly longer period, in 1800, to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, the greater share of the island of Ireland was granted autonomy as the Irish Free State, essentially a dominion like Canada and Australia, which declared full independence some years later (1949 if memory serves me) while essentially ignoring its alleged dominion status in the interim. At that point the current style of the nation, “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” was adopted.

But the land area in Great Britain which is part of neither Scotland nor Wales and of which Elizabeth of Windsor is the second queen regnant of that name, after Elizabeth Tudor, remains England.

Because the city was originally settled by the Portugese, who founded the city on a bay, which they named “the Good Bay”, or “Bom Bahia”. When the English took control of the city, they anglicized it to Bombay. In 1995, the Maratha/Hindu nationalist/religious party Shiv Sena, which controlled the state that Bombay was in, changed the name of the city to Mumbai, because they considered the old name a foreign, non Maratha, influence, and part of Shiv Sena’s platform is the removal of foreign or non-Hindu values and ideas.

The Rs in Burma and Myanmar are both silent; it’s apparently the fault of various British people that they made it into the spelling - note that the British, non-rhotic pronunciations are closer to the original sounds than the American ones. “Myanma” is merely a historical pronunciation of the word “Baama”, which - as I understand - is the pronunciation in Burmese. Why they decided to unearth an archaic pronunciation of the same word and declare it the name of their country is beyond me.

And, of course, “Wallachia” is the land of the Vlachs. “Vlachs” being the former general term for people who speak Romanian.

Or, more precisely, “White Ruthenia.”

For a time, Madagascar was calling itself the Malagasy Republic.

Malaysia was once called “Malaya,” a term which in its narrow sense refers to the Malay Peninsula, but in a broader sense, refers to all Malay-speaking lands, which includes much of Indonesia.

The change came many years after independence.

French Somaliland --> Afars and Issas --> Djibouti

Rio Muni --> Equatorial Guinea

Abyssinia --> Ethiopia

True, but England is just a division of the United Kingdom.

As you clearly explained, the United Kingdom is the same country that was once just called England, and every time it added new territory, it changed its name.

New Hebrides --> Vanuatu

Gilbert Islands --> Kiribati

Friendly Islands --> Tonga

Ellice Islands --> Tuvalu

I’m not sure about this.

My neighbours are Iranian, from Tehran. Persia and Iran seem to be interchangeable for them. I’ll see what they have to say.