Hendrik Hondius, Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula, 1630
Henricus Hondius II - This is a scan of the copy belonging to the State Library of New South Wales.

Why Do Countries and Cities Change Their Names?

by Mark Orwoll

The reasons are many -- political, linguistic, nationalistic -- but not always well considered

The 1897 Howard Vincent Map of the British Empire (Showing the Possessions Throughout the World of the British People--Their Extent, Population, and Revenue) offers a Boy's Own adventure without leaving one's desk, and conjures up a world peopled by the likes of Jack London, Nellie Bly, and Rudyard Kipling. Hula girls sway in the Sandwich Islands! Mystery awaits in the dark alleyways of Constantinople! Strange beasts prey on ill-prepared travelers in the veld of Cape Colony! Overhead fans cool white-suited tea-drinkers in old Ceylon.

Of course, those places are gone now. That is, they exist, but under different, somehow less romantic names. Sometimes the updated rubrics were done for excellent reasons -- to shake off the mantle of colonialism, to honor heroes, to celebrate traditional culture. But other name changes ... meh, not so much. Imagine a city renamed for the inventor of the Molotov cocktail, or another that took a goofy name just so it could get air time on the radio.

Goodbye, Peking. Hello, Beijing

No matter the reason, one can only feel a sense of loss--a loss readily apparent in China. I would desperately love to visit Peking (or, even more delicious, Pekin, as it was sometimes called). Yes, I've been to Beijing several times, but it's just not the same. The reason has nothing to do with a name change, either. In fact, the Mandarin name for Beijing hasn't changed at all, but the Roman (or Latin) alphabet spelling and pronunciation has.

In the 19th century, the Wade-Giles transliteration system was the standard for romanization of Mandarin Chinese, and remained so for most of the 20th century. The system was the product of Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Allen Giles, two British linguists, the latter of whom served as a British consular official for 25 years throughout what was then called the Chinese Empire. That system was somewhat at odds with a later transliteration system called Hanyu Pinyin, believed by many to be more accurate. In Pinyin, what would have sounded like a p under Wade-Giles becomes a b. The Wade-Giles letter k becomes, in some cases, a j or soft g, and a c sometimes becomes a hard g. Although such changes might sound minor, pedantic, even petty, that's how Peking became Beijing, Canton transformed into Guangzhou, and Nanking woke up one more to be called Nanjing.

Pinyin transliteration was adopted in 1958 by the still-new communist Chinese regime. The new spellings didn't become common in the West, though, until the 1980s, when the Chinese bureaucracy cracked down on airlines, government agencies, shipping companies, and others who were still using the old Wade-Giles system. Curiously, though, the government has continued its English spelling of Peking University, the most prestigious college in China.

India Opens the Floodgates of Change

Apart from China, few countries can claim the number of new spellings, pronunciations, and outright name changes as has India. Not unexpectedly, India's numerous place-name changes are primarily owing to the end of British colonial rule in 1947. Some of the changes took place as part of the Indian government's States Reorganization Act of 1956, when new states were formed by combining or breaking up previous geopolitical entities.

As a result, Travancore-Cochin became Kerala; Madras State was renamed Tamil Nadu; and Mysore State became Karnataka. Cities that reverted to their pre-colonial origins include Mumbai (formerly Bombay), Chennai (Madras), and Puducherry (Pondicherry). But that wasn't the end of it. When the British left India nearly 75 years ago, the newly independent nation was left with the task of refining the spelling of various English words into the Indian English dialect.

Some place-name changes weren't the result of anti-colonial sentiments or because of local traditions, but simply to conform with the norms of that dialect. In other words, the name is more or less the same, but the English spelling has changed. As a result, Calcutta became Kolkata, Cochin became Kochi, Benares (also once spelled Banares) became Varanasi, Bangalore became Bengaluru, etc.

Traditions and Anti-Imperialism in Southeast Asia and Africa

Asia, in general, seems prone to name changing. Siam, a name accepted throughout the world as far back as the Age of Exploration, became Thailand in 1939 after nationalist radical (and later dictator) Luang Phibunsongkhram took control and changed the nation's name in an effort to unite the disparate Tai-speaking peoples. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a military junta in Burma decreed in 1989 the nation would be called Myanmar. Nearby Cambodia was called Kampuchea under the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge, but later reverted to its former name when the brutal regime came to an end.

Mainly owing to a desire to shed the shadows of imperialism, many newly liberated African nations in the 1960s also rebranded themselves. Southern Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Northern Rhodesia became Zambia. Spanish Sahara became Western Sahara. Anglo-Egyptian Sudan became, simply, Sudan. British East Africa became Kenya. The Belgian Congo became the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Anti-colonial fervor wasn't limited to Africa. In South America, British Guiana became Guyana. Dutch Guiana became Suriname. And French Guiana ... well, it's still French Guiana, a departement of France, much like the islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Reunion in the Indian Ocean.

War Changed Everything in Australia

Australia, on the other hand, generally embraces its ties with its British motherland. Australian soldiers were every bit a part of World War I as were their British allies. That conflict's battle of Gallipoli, in which thousands of brave Aussie fighter lost their lives, is still honored today with special pride Down Under, a mark of the hard-bitten determination of the Australian soldier. But anti-German sentiment in the years during and following the Great War drove many cities to rid themselves of Germanic (or merely Germanic-sounding) names for something more palatable.

Hessenburg, Queensland, became Ingoldsby. Bismarck, South Australia, became Weeroopa. Germantown, Tasmania, became Lilydale. Heidelberg in Western Australia became Bickley. Even the North Rhine River and the South Rhine River were renamed the Somme and the Marne, respectively. In all, more than 100 Australian place-names were changed to less Teutonic titles between 1914 and 1920.

When Politicians Get in the Act

A more suspicious rationale for a change in names is to honor a politician -- often a corrupt or dictatorial one. In 1952, soon after the death of Eva Peron, and in a burst of what can only be described as Evita fever, the city of La Plata was renamed Ciudad Eva Peron. Someone thought better of that decision, though, and three years later the name was La Plata once again.

A fondness for local politicians wasn't limited to Argentina. In Brazil, Nova Breslau changed its moniker to Presidente Getulio, titled after World War II-era leader (some say dictator) Getulio Vargas. The Cambodian beach town of Kampong Som morphed into Sihanoukville to honor the king many consider to be the father of modern Cambodia. In Russia, St. Petersburg changed to Leningrad then back to St. Petersburg; Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad, which became Volgograd; Rybinsk became Andropov became Rybinsk; Perm became Molotov became Perm.

Not even the United States is immune to renaming places for politicians. After our first President's death, dozens of towns and cities (not to mention a certain former swamp in Maryland) took the name Washington or some variation.

Often Dubious Changes in America

America, in fact, could probably vie with any nation on earth for most name changes, some of which are dubious, at best. For some reason, Cross Keys, Pennsylvania, thought it a good idea to become Intercourse. Things must have been nerve-wracking in Desmet, Idaho, which changed its name to Tensed. The average town of North Bloomington, Illinois, declared itself to be Normal. The lovely sounding Cold Spring, Massachusetts, got it into its head that Belchertown sounded even better. Hot Springs, New Mexico, decided it needed better marketing, so in 1950 rebranded itself Truth or Consequences, the name of a popular radio game show, in exchange for an on-air plug. Big Lick, Virginia, showing more common sense, changed its name to Roanoke.

There are a few places that might actually want to consider changing their names: Boring, Oregon; Hell, Michigan; Hooker, Oklahoma; and Why, Arizona, to name a few. On the other hand, names like those probably lure a few curious tourists off the interstate.

But no matter where you live, you probably don't have to venture far to find local examples of the old switcheroo. Where I live, in the Hudson Valley north of New York (formerly New Amsterdam), the town of Ossining has had an unusual relationship with the famous prison in its city limits. The town occupies land once home to an Indian tribe called the Sint Sinck. Soon a hamlet of Dutch and English settlers grew up along the river and was called Sing Sing. A prison, also called Sing Sing, opened in 1826, but soon developed such a notorious reputation that the village, trying to set itself apart from the penitentiary, changed its name to Ossining in 1901. As if playing a game of nomenclature tag, the prison changed its name in 1970 to Ossining Correction Facility. But in 1983, before the town could change its name once again, the prison reverted to its former name, Sing Sing.

Another place nearby, a village called North Tarrytown (in reference to a more prosperous village to its south) had grown disenchanted with its name. The idea grew that perhaps the village should latch on to the name of a charming ravine at its borders. The ravine and a historic cemetery in the heart of the village shared the same name. They had both been immortalized in one of the most popular stories in American literature, written by a notable author who lived not far away. The author was Washington Irving, the story he wrote was The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and that's how, in 1996, North Tarrytown became Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Sometimes a name change seems just right.

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Mark Orwoll has written for Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Town & Country, the Robb Report, the Saturday Evening Post, and other national magazines and websites. He is a longtime resident of the Lower Hudson Valley, named for the Hudson River, formerly called the North River.

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