10 Countries Who Have Changed Their Names

Kuthodaw Temple, in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Many cities, states, towns, and provinces around the world have undergone a name change for different reasons. A name change is often done for political or nationalistic reasons such as removing traces of colonial rule or reflecting the ideologies of the government in power. A country or state may also change its name for purely commemorative reasons, especially in honor of an influential person or an important event in the country. A country may also change its name to improve their image and to erase an unpleasant event or memory in its history. Here are ten countries that have successfully changed their names.

10. Persia/Iran

Historically, Iran was referred to as Persia due to the Greek writings. The region covering the present day Iran was occupied by the Persians who established the Persian Empire. In 1935, the government of Iran directed the countries it had diplomatic relations with to refer to it as Iran instead of Persia. The suggestion to change the name is thought to have been influenced by Iranian ambassador to Germany who had also been influenced by the Nazis. The countries obliged and the name “Iran” began to appear in official documents. Although there was opposition to the change of name from some quarters, the move to use Persia and Iran interchangeably changed the perception of the people and today the country freely referred to as Iran.

9. Kampuchea/Cambodia

Cambodia has changed its name several times, especially when the new ruling party wanted to erase the traces of the previous one. Between 1953 and 1970, the country was renamed the Kingdom of Cambodia. From 1970 to 1975 it was named the Khmer Republic. Under the communist rule from 1975 to 1979, it was referred to as Democratic Kampuchea. Under the UN transition authority from 1989 to 1993, the country was named the State of Cambodia. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1993, Cambodia was renamed the Kingdom of Cambodia. The Khmer people prefer to call themselves Kampuchea meaning “Descendant of Prince Kambu.” The name Cambodia is a Western mispronunciation of Kampuchea.

8. Burma/Myanmar

Myanmar is known in English by two names; Myanmar and Burma. The country’s name has been changed from the “Burma” to the “Myanmar” and finally to the “Republic of the Union of Myanmar” which has been a subject of controversy. The change of name was done by the military junta in 1989, one year after several people were killed in an attempt to suppress a popular uprising. The name change was recognized by several countries including France and Japan and the UN. However, the US and the UK did not recognize the unelected military that changed the name.

7. Transjordan/Jordan

Transjordan was recognized as a state in September 1922 and remained a British mandate until 1946 when it was granted independence. In May 1946 the authorities renamed it “The Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan” after the ratification of the Treaty of London. In 1949 the name was again changed to “The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.” Jordan is referred to as the Hashemite Kingdom since it was ruled by the Hashemite dynasty. Hashemite is today used in Jordan to refer to the royal family while Jordan is a name that refers to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized.

6. Abyssinia/Ethiopia

The Ethiopian Empire, also known as Abyssinia, covered the northern present state of Ethiopia. The founding of the Solomonic dynasty by the Abyssinians in 1270 led to the naming of the whole country “Abyssinia.” The Abyssinians ruled uninterrupted up until the 20th century, governing larger parts of Ethiopia. Abyssinia was changed to Ethiopia during World War II by Hailesilase, the X King of Ethiopia. Some scholars have argued that Ethiopia has always been called the same name (Ethiopia) since the 4th century and that the name Abyssinia was just popularized by the Arabs and that Ethiopia is bigger than Abyssinia geographically.

5. Bechuanaland/Botswana

Botswana was formerly known as the British protectorate of Bechuanaland. The name Bechuanaland was adopted by the British on March 31, 1885, when it adopted the country as one of its territories. The territory remained under the Bechuanaland Protectorate until independence on September 30, 1966. Botswana adopted the new name after independence. Botswana is named after “Tswana,” the largest ethnic group in the country, also referred to as Bechuana in older variant orthography.

4. Ceylon/Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been known by several names over time. Under the British rule, Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon from 1815 to 1948. Ceylon is a transliteration of Ceilao, the country’s name under the Portuguese who were the first colonial rulers. The name Sri Lanka was introduced during the push for independence in the early 20th century. It was used by the Marxist Lanka Sama Samaja Party while Sri was introduced by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. It officially adopted the name “The Republic of Sri Lanka” in 1972 and changed the name to “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” in 1978.

3. Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo was formally known by several names such as Congo Free State, Belgium Congo, and Congo-Leopoldville. In 1960, it attained independence under the name “Republic of Congo,” named after the Congo River. From 1965 to 1971 the country was renamed to the “Democratic Republic of the Congo” and in 1971 President Mobutu Sese Seko named it “Republic of Zaire.” Although the Sovereign National Congress voted to change the name back to the "Democratic Republic of the Congo” in 1992, the change took place in 1977 following the fall of Mobutu.

2. Upper Volta/Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso, formally known as the Upper Volta, was renamed in August 1984 by President Thomas Sankara. He chose the names “Burkina” and “Faso” from the two main languages in the country. The name “Upper Volta” had been given by the French colonialist because of the Volta River which flows across the country. Burkina means “honest people” in Moore language while Faso means “fatherland” in Dyula language. The two words put together means “land of the honest people.”

1. Dahomey/Benin

Dahomey was a powerful pre-colonial kingdom that was established in West Africa in what is now the Benin Republic. The kingdom also covered the present day Togo and some parts of southwestern Nigeria. The Dahomey Kingdom was famous for the skilled female warriors who served as royal bodyguards. The country changed its name from Dahomey to the Benin Republic fifteen years after the country attained its independence in 1975 under the leadership Mathieu Kerekou. The change of name was likened to Marxist-Leninist ideals in which Kerekou believed.


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