Many other countries adopted new names immediately after gaining independence from colonial rule.
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 said better reflected its culture and traditions.
There were, of course, less exalted reasons for the change. As Turkey’s TRT World news agency has pointed out, “Turkey” is more often associated with a bird that features on Christmas menus or Thanksgiving dinners, and English dictionary searches for “turkey” will yield also results that include “a dumb or stupid person” or “something that fails badly”. No wonder the Turks wanted the name changed.
Although not a common practice, name changes by country are not as rare as one might imagine. In 1939, Siam changed its name to Thailand, since in the Thai language, the name of the country is Prathet Thai, “the country of free people”. Three decades later, Ceylon became Sri Lanka. Ceylon takes its name from the Portuguese who landed there in 1505, and it continued to be used by the British who colonized the country. It took 20 years after independence in 1948 for the modern republic to revert to its old name of Sri Lanka. (This created some confusion overseas: I remember an American student from my graduate school presenting a scholarly paper on the prospects for tea cartelization, solemnly telling our class that his research showed that “three countries dominate world tea production — India, Ceylon and Sri Lanka”.)
Many other countries adopted new names immediately after their independence from colonial rule. The Dutch East Indies became the Republic of Indonesia (a name coined from the Greek indos — for India or Indies — and nesos — for island). Dutch Guiana also became Suriname upon decolonization in 1975. The jointly administered Anglo-French New Hebrides became independent in 1980 as Vanuatu, which means “Our Land Forever” in many local Melanesian languages. German South West Africa became Namibia when the country gained independence in 1990 from South Africa, which had ruled it since Germany’s defeat in World War I. In 1989 the Burmese military government announced a name change from Burma to Myanmar, but this was opposed by some in the country, and partly due to the perceived illegitimacy of the junta, many still use the old name . Similarly, the Democratic Republic of the Congo became Zaire in 1971 under President Mobutu, but reverted to its former name in 1997 after his ouster.
Some countries were given English names that sounded more like geographical descriptions than proper names, so they insisted on standardizing them into names that local people preferred. So the Gold Coast became Ghana and the Ivory Coast was renamed Cote d’Ivoire (a French name) in English too. Likewise, in 2013, Cape Verde officially became the Republic of Cabo Verde, or simply Cabo Verde, which is how the Portuguese sailors who discovered the islands called them since 1444. Upper Volta (named after the Volta River) was renamed “Burkina Faso”. to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of independence. The new name, in the local language, means “land of incorruptible men”.
In 2016, the Czech Republic announced a change to Czechia, believing that a shorter name would be less cumbersome. Similarly, the Netherlands dropped Holland as an alternate name in 2019, saying having two names caused confusion and diluted the country’s brand image. In 2018, Swaziland became Eswatini, both because it was the name in the national language (meaning “land of the Swazis”) but also because the old name was too often confused by foreigners with Switzerland!
Sometimes history and controversy hide behind name changes. When Yugoslavia broke up in the 1990s, Greece bitterly contested the right of one of its successor republics, Macedonia, to use the name, saying it threatened the province’s sovereignty. Macedonian Greek. Under pressure from Athens, the new country had to bear the unwieldy name of the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or FYROM for short. It took two decades of negotiations to finally reach a solution, and FYROM officially changed its name to the Republic of North Macedonia in February 2019. Of course, nothing changes for the locals, who continue to call themselves ” Macedonians” and to speak “Macedonian”. . But that’s all Greek to the rest of us!