These 16 countries were called a different name previously

Many other countries adopted new names immediately upon independence from colonial rule

By Shashi Tharoor

Published: Thu 24 Feb 2022, 8:53 PM

In case some of you missed the news, Turkey (the country) is no longer “Turkey” in English. The country officially changed its name in December to Türkiye, which the government felt better reflected its culture and traditions.

There were, of course, less exalted reasons for the change. As the Turkish news agency TRT World has pointed out, ‘Turkey’ is more commonly associated with a bird that features on Christmas menus or Thanksgiving dinners, and English dictionary searches for “turkey” will also get results that include “a stupid or silly person” or “something that fails badly”. No wonder the Turks wanted the name changed.

While not a common practice, name changes by countries are not as rare as one might imagine. As far back as 1939, Siam changed its name to Thailand, since in the Thai language, the country’s name is Prathet Thai, “the country of free people”. Three decades later, Ceylon became Sri Lanka. Ceylon got its name from the Portuguese who landed there in 1505, and this continued to be used by the British who colonised the country. It took 20 years after independence in 1948 for the modern-day republic to revive its ancient name of Sri Lanka. (This created some confusion abroad: I remember an American student at my graduate school presenting a learned paper on the prospects for cartelisation of tea, solemnly telling our class that his research showed that “three countries dominate the world’s tea production — India, Ceylon and Sri Lanka”.)

Many other countries adopted new names immediately upon independence from colonial rule. The Netherlands East Indies became the Republic of Indonesia (a name coined from the Greek indos — for India or Indies — and nesos—for island). Dutch Guiana similarly became Suriname upon decolonisation in 1975. The jointly administered Anglo-French condominium of the New Hebrides achieved independence in 1980 as Vanuatu, which means “Our Land Forever” in many of the local Melanesian languages. German South-West Africa changed to Namibia when the country became independent in 1990 from South Africa, which had ruled it since Germany’s defeat in World War I. In 1989, Burma’s military government announced a change in name from Burma to Myanmar, but this was disputed by some within the country, and partly because of the junta’s perceived illegitimacy, many still use the old name. Similarly, the Democratic Republic of the Congo became Zaire in 1971 under President Mobutu, but reverted to its old name in 1997 after his ouster.

Some countries were given English names that seemed more like geographical descriptions than proper names, so they insisted upon standardising these in names the local people preferred. Thus the Gold Coast became Ghana and the Ivory Coast was rebaptised Cote d’Ivoire (a French name) in English too. Similarly, in 2013, Cape Verde officially became the Republic of Cabo Verde, or simply Cabo Verde, which is what the Portuguese sailors who discovered the islands had called them since 1444. Upper Volta (named for the Volta river) was renamed “Burkina Faso” to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of independence. The new name, in the local language, means “country of incorruptible men”.

In 2016, the Czech Republic announced a change to Czechia, reasoning that a shorter name would be less unwieldy. Similarly, the Netherlands dropped Holland as an alternate name in 2019, saying having two names caused confusion and diluted the nation’s branding. In 2018, Swaziland changed to Eswatini, both because that was the name in the national language (meaning “land of the Swazis”) but also because the old name was too often mistaken by foreigners for Switzerland!

Sometimes history and controversy lie behind name changes. When Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s, Greece bitterly disputed the right of one of the successor Republics, Macedonia, to use that name, claiming it threatened the sovereignty of the Greek province of Macedonia. Under pressure from Athens, the new country had to carry the unwieldy name of The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short. It took two decades of negotiations to finally arrive at solution, and FYROM formally changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in February 2019. Of course, nothing changes for the inhabitants, who continue to call themselves “Macedonians” and speak “Macedonian”. But that’s all Greek to the rest of us!

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