How often do countries change their name? The answer is actually fairly regularly. In 2018 we have seen Swaziland become the Kingdom of Eswatini to mark their 50th year of independence, and some people say, to prevent seemingly unlikely confusion with Switzerland.
One of YPT’s favourite unrecognised countries, Nagorno-Karabakh, has also officially changed its name to the Republic of Artsakh, and of course 2 years ago the Czech Republic became Czechia.
And today may see the newest renamed country in the world, with the Republic of Macedonia – formerly the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – changing its name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia, thus pleasing Greece and paving the way for membership of the EU and NATO, and thus displeasing its large near neighbour to the east.
Many name changes happen in a post-colonial context, many happen for administrative reasons, and some maybe because in this day and age people can’t tell the difference between Swaziland and Switzerland.
So, here’s YPT’s 5 most interesting name changes in history!
Persia – Iran
In 1935 the government of Persia suddenly requested that everyone referred to it as Iran, the name of the country in Persian. Some believe this was under the influence of the Nazis and that the name “Iran” is a derivative of the word “Aryan”, suggesting not only a new start for Iran free of British or Russian influence, but also make explicit the Aryan race of its population.
Whatever, the reason, the name change has certainly sunk in, and nobody seems too perturbed as to the chance of names being mixed up with its neighbour Iraq.
Burma – Myanmar
In 1989, the military government of this Asian country changed its name of Burma to Myanmar. This was not a simple post-colonial move; both Burma and Myanmar derive from Burmese, and whether you call it Burma or Myanmar seems to depend on your taste for the military junta.
Nobel Peace Prize Winner/ethnic cleanser Aung San Suu Kyi helped the matter by clarifying that we are free to call the country Burma or Myanmar, whichever we prefer.
If George Orwell were still alive, we guess he’d think the same thing.
East Timor – Timor-Leste
After a long struggle to gain independence from Indonesia, East Timor became the newest country around in 1999 as the only predominantly Christian countries in South East Asia along with the Philippines.
Timor, in many of the main regional languages, means ‘east’. So this country was known as East East, which is a bit silly but nobody seems to think that’s a problem. The country is undoubtedly very east, unless you’re a Papua New Guinean or from a Pacific Island.
And, not unlike the Ivory Coast becoming Côte d’Ivoire, East Timor became known in its Portuguese form, Timor-Leste.
Kampuchea – Cambodia
Some names changes also reflect political and historical splits in present times. The Kingdom of Cambodia was renamed the Khmer Republic under the Lon Nol government in 1970, and the Khmer Rouge went one step further and renamed it Democratic Kampuchea.
Not to be outdone, when the Vietnamese invaded they renamed the new state the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, probably to annoy the Chinese. Under the United Nations Transitional Authority, the country changed back to Cambodia and when the monarchy was restored in 1993 back to the Kingdom of Cambodia. Plus ça change…
And it seems to us that Cambodians themselves usually just refer to it as the land of the Khmer, so it’s probably all immaterial.
Pleasant Island – Nauru / Ellice Island – Tuvalu / Gilbert Islands – Kiribati / New Hebrides – Vanuatu
The western Pacific nations are generally all fairly newly independent, and were known by various colonial names.
The British Western Pacific Territories was made up of various islands in the western Pacific, later breaking into separate colonial territories, with most later becoming independent.
Some were named after colonial captains, some as reminders of locations at home, and what we now know as Nauru was named by an English whaler, the first European to visit the island. Whether this whaler was a typically English guy using irony, or that he simply lacked a thesaurus, to this day nobody knows.
See Nauru et al on our Least Visited Countries tour for new year!