Countries and Cities That Changed Their Names

The people of Macedonia head to the voting booths on Sunday for a referendum on whether the country that used to be a part of Yugoslavia will change its name.

The southeast European nation, whose bids for entry into the European Union and NATO have for decades been blocked by Greece, will decide whether it wishes to accept a compromise and become the Republic of North Macedonia. That outcome will help settle the longstanding dispute with Athens, which believes its northern neighbor’s name implies territorial claims to a Greek border province.

If the resolution passes, Macedonia will begin the complicated process of formally changing how it is known, including sending official notice to the U.N. and advising how to write the new name in the international organization’s six official languages. Other countries such as Swaziland, which the king announced this year would now be known as eSwatini, have already begun a similar process, which has not yet been completed, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

Historically, whether a name change has a positive result depends on the circumstances by which a country is compelled to alter its name, experts say. Some, for example, seek to overturn a past injustice, such as political or societal control by an outside power like a European empire, or a domestic group, like a particular religion or ethnic sect. Others might seek to empower a public consensus that the spirit of their collective name no longer represents their identity or interests. Some acting more malevolently might see business or political interests in foisting a particular title upon a population they control.

Rightly or wrongly, changing the name of a city or country cannot represent the interests of everyone involved, says Tirthankar Roy, a professor of global history at the London School of Economics.

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“You’re basically pandering to a particular sentiment,” says, Roy, an expert on industrialization in South Asia. “Doing that in a multicultural society is always a questionable thing.”

“A name embodies history, so you have to face it. London, for example, will always evoke a certain thousand-year-old history and you want to preserve that. You don’t want to change to say, ‘Winstonchurchilltown.’ That’s destroying memory.”

Among the most evident examples of name changes are post-colonial countries in Africa and South Asia — The Gold Coast became Ghana, Burma became Myanmar — which upon earning their freedom sought to either restore or create a name that better reflected local preferences.

Elsewhere in history, socialist and nationalist movements sought to erase their national history by blanketing it with politically relevant terms, like when the Soviet Union renamed Volgograd as Leningrad and St. Petersburg as Stalingrad in honor of the political leaders that built that system of government. Those cities regained their original names when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.

“We must return to the values that were thrown out in the past 70 years. We must return to the faith, the spirituality, and we should start by giving the city back the name it had 200 years,” retired engineer Yulia Ivanova told The New York Times in 1991 after Leningrad approved its referendum to return its name to St. Petersburg by 55 percent. Others who commented anonymously for the story declared, “It must remain Leningrad.”

The motivation behind other name changes is not always so clear. Indian cities known during British colonial rule as Bombay, Calcutta and Madras were named as such to enable business transactions with early European traders who needed names they understood to document in their paperwork. The names solidified during nearly two centuries of British rule, but in the late 1990s and early 2000s nationalistic sentiment prompted Indian government leaders to adopt less-Anglicized names: Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. The predominantly Hindu government in India also pushed to rename a central train hub at Mughalsarai Junction in Uttar Pradesh after prominent Hindu intellectual Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, escaping the city name’s Islamic roots.

Yet even those decisions about whose culture to adopt are not always clear-cut ones: Some experts believe Kolkata, for example, would never have become a hub of significance were it not for British influence. Its population grew five-fold in the 19th century, according to The Guardian.

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Several countries in Africa have changed their names, some for obvious reasons: Rhodesia is clearly a European derivative, named after the British South Africa Company’s Cecil Rhodes, who first documented the territory for Britain. It subsequently became Zimbabwe, a name derived from the language of the Shona people of southern Africa.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has changed its name multiple times, beginning with “Belgian Congo” followed by its current name, and then Zaire during the tenure of Mobutu Sese Seko, who seized power in a 1965 coup. That government collapsed in 1990, and Zaire reverted to being called The Democratic Republic of the Congo again.

“As far as I can tell, this has been valued for its political symbolism and for very little else,” says Ed Keller, a professor at UCLA and director of its Globalization Research Center for Africa, speaking generally about the utility of name changes. “The reasons for changing as a rejection of a European colonial past was the primary objective, with no disagreement.”

Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia changed their names following insurrection and political collapse in the early 1990s, causing them both to fracture along historic and ethnic lines. In the former Yugoslavia those divisions yielded intense conflicts that still pervade in some areas of the countries that now exist in those places.

The Canadian metropolises of Ottawa and Toronto changed their names from Bytown and York, respectively, in the mid-19th century to better reflect native influences, as well as their demographics and history.

And in other corners of the world, attempts to reshape cultures have ended in compromise. Visitors to Ireland and Wales will see signs that show both the shortened, Anglicized version of cities like Dublin and Cardiff adjacent to the names in their native languages: Duibhlinn and Caerdydd.

“Economically, culturally, they’re trying to reinvent their identity,” says Roy, noting that smaller countries that make these kinds of changes often feel insecure about their political and economic positions. “We need to give it a couple more centuries before you see the drive has passed, and sense a kind of national identity that doesn’t feel the need to make these aggressive gestures.”

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