15 name changes from the around the world

Posted on 13 April 2017

‘Change is indubitable, progress is a matter of controversy’ said Bertrand Russell. What’s in a name you may say? Many countries and cities have had numerous name changes over the years. Name changing of a city or country occurs when a country or city acquires a new independence, to honour political leaders or local heroes, when the economy evolves, for the sake of nation building and to accommodate the different ethnicities and languages.

In 2015, in the Eastern Cape, a political party proposed a name change for the city of East London to become Dr Walter Benson Rubusana Metropolitan. Recently, a world-renowned multi-award winning author and professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o said the name of East London should be changed.  Both the political party and professor Ngugi, believe in the importance of the name change to shift away from ‘colonialism’ to have a more positive effect on tourism. In South Africa, it is believed that certain names were given to places however they weren’t documented on maps or fully acknowledged pre-apartheid times. The South African Geographical Names Council does ultimately have the final say. In the meantime, have a look at name changes of cities and countries from around the world, that will amaze you.

1. Peking to Beijing

After 1979, Peking (pronounced Pay-Cheeng) became Beijing. The Chinese capital didn’t change its name, they spelt it differently. The government adopted the Pinyin Transliteration Method, where the Chinese word for the capital became Beijing. In the 80s, China enforced the spelling for ‘Beijing’ on all flights, sea routes and documents.

Corner tower of the Palace Museum, Beijing. Image by Mark Meng

2. New Amsterdam to New York

Let’s time travel to how this came about. Dutch explorers found New Amsterdam at the Southern most tip of Manhattan Island in America. Britain, France and the Netherlands struggled to expand territories, so they established colonies. Britain and France were rivals before they formed an alliance against the Netherlands. 1664 was the year the Dutch surrendered the colony of New Amsterdam to the English, who renamed it New York.

In the famous words of Jay Z and Alicia Keys…’Concrete jungle, where dreams are made of’. Photo by Altug Karakoc

3. Siam to Thailand

After 1932, Siam became a constitutional monarchy. The word Siam originates from a Sanskrit word Syam. Siam was renamed Thailand in 1939. The meaning of Thailand is ‘The land of the free’.

4. Gold Coast to Ghana

In the 1950s, the Gold Coast was a country with the highest level of education in Sub – Saharan Africa. It was the gold that drew the traders to parts of Africa and that is how the name ‘Gold Coast’ came to life. The gold later became the main source of wealth in the country. Rumour has it that after the independence from Britain in 1957, Dr Kwame Nkrumah changed the countries name to G.H.A.N.A (God Has Appointed Nkrumah for Africa). The etymology of the name Ghana means ‘warrior king’.

5. Ceylon to Sri Lanka

Ceylon gained independence in 1948 and the name changed to Sri Lanka when it became a republic in 1972. Ceylon is a transliteration of Ceilao made by the British. The word Ceylon is also commonly used in the tea industry.

The beautiful beach right next to the hotel in Trincomalee. Image by Melanie van Zyl

The beautiful beach right next to the hotel in Trincomalee. Image by Melanie van Zyl

6. Constantinople to Istanbul

Istanbul has had more name changes than P.Diddy/Puff Daddy/Sean Combs. The names changed with every historical or political occurrence. Some of the names given to Istanbul in the past are Lygos, Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome to Constantinople. During the Ottoman period, the Roman Emperor, The Great Constantine established Constantinople as his capital. The name later became changed to Istanbul in 1930 and remained.

7. Bombay to Mumbai

Shiv Sena believed that Bombay was corrupted by the legacy of the colonial British rulers. They had started a movement to strengthen the local language’s identity: Marathi. In 1995, after Shiv Sena (a Hindu Nationalist), won the elections, the Indian government changed the name to Mumbai. The changes were made to reflect the linguistic systems.

8. Zaire to the Democratic Republic of Congo

Believe it or not, there is a difference between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo. There has been geographical confusion around the two. The Democratic of Congo is the western neighbour of the Republic of Congo. The official language in both countries is French. The Democratic Republic of Congo, together with the Congo River were named Zaire by the former president, Sese Seko Mobutu. In 1997, the Congolese Sovereign National Conference returned the name back to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The roads of Lefoutou Makaga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by jbdodane

The roads of Lefoutou Makaga in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Image from by jbdodane

9. Burma to Myanmar

In 1989, after thousands were killed by the Rangoon Squad-Burma’s wicked apologists, Burma was officially recognised and declared as Myanmar by the United Nations. Burma had 135 different ethnicities and it is believed that the British Colonial government played the different groups, with hopes to weaken the country. Ethnic supremacy played a big role in affecting the country from becoming a democratic nation.

Temples of Bagan by Stefan Munder

10. Rhodesia to Zimbabwe

Disputes over name changes in Zimbabwe date back to 1964 when Northern Rhodesia became Independent to Britain. Zimbabwe means ‘Houses of stone’ in Shona, however, the European African community was fond of the name Rhodesia. After the appointment of Prime Minister, Abel Muzorewa dropped the name Rhodesia. The airline Air Rhodesia changed to Air Zimbabwe and the national flag also received a makeover.

11. German South West Africa to Namibia

The first European in Namibia was Diogo Cao in 1884. The Namibia area was called German South West Africa as the former German Colony were based in the north west of Southern Africa. In 1968, the United Nations General Assembly changed the name to Namibia. They year 1990, Namibia gained its independence and Sam Nujoma was appointed as the first president.

12. Pretoria and Tshwane

Although Tshwane is increasingly becoming the popular and preferred name, Tshwane refers to the municipality and not the city. The city still remains Pretoria. Seems to be a case of easing slowly into change? The change was proposed to reflect South Africa’s social cohesion. The city is referred to as Pretoria on destination travel sites.  The name Tshwane means ‘we are the same’ in Setswana. Tshwane is also known as Jacaranda City due to the purple jacaranda trees that bloom in the city in October each year.

The Jacarandas in full bloom in Pretoria. Image by Tyson Jopson

13. Pietersburg to Polokwane

Polokwane is the capital of the Limpopo province. The word Polokwane means ‘place of safety’ in Sesotho. In 1886, the Voortrekkers found Pietersburg. There were concentration camps built by the British to provide shelter for about 4000 women and children who were displaced by the war, during the Anglo-Boer War. The town only became a city in 1992. The South African government declared the name change in 2005.

14. Abyssinia to Ethiopia

Ethiopia is the oldest independent country in Africa. Abyssinia is used in Europe more than Ethiopia. Ethiopia was registered as a member of the League of Nations and was listed under the name Ethiopia, which was given by King Ezana of Axum as the new ‘Christian’ name.

Sunset silhouettes by Dan Harrison

15. Persia to Iran

Iran was often confused with their neighbouring state Iraq during World War II. The government legalised the name Iran on 21 March 1935 and was approved by Mohammad Reza Shah, who fostered economic development in Iran. Members of the community felt calling someone or something Persian was dated. Iran is the modern contraction of the name Airyana Vaeja (the ancient homeland of the Aryans).

Holy Shrine of Abdulazim by David Stanley


If you know of any others that have not made the list, please engage with us and let us know.



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