HomeTravelWhy do countries change their name?

Why do countries change their name?


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Modi’s trial balloon hasn’t flown very far yet. No wonder. Changing the official name of a nation isn’t easy, or cheap. A country must send official notice to the United Nations and advise how to write the new name in the international body’s six official languages. Once approved, UN officials register the new name in the database of World Geographical Names. Signs, military uniforms, official currency, government letterhead ā€“ and more ā€“ must also be changed.

The pace of name changes may have accelerated, but it is not a new phenomenon. Places have been changing names for as long as there have been places and names. Before the 5th Century, Paris was known as Lutetia, a holdover from Roman times. Before 1665, New York was New Amsterdam. For a while, from 1793 to 1834, Toronto was known as York. Before 1868, Tokyo was called Edo. And, in what is arguably history’s most famous name change, in 1930 Constantinople became Istanbul, inspiring Turkish pride as well as a hit song: Istanbul (Not Constantinople).

But why do place names matter? For newly independent nations hoping to distance themselves from a painful colonial past, a name change is typically the first order of business. When the British colony known as the Gold Coast gained independence in 1957, it immediately changed its name to Ghana. As decolonisation accelerated, the 1970s and ’80s witnessed a flurry of name changes, from Ceylon changing its name to Sri Lanka (1972) to Upper Volta becoming Burkina Faso (1984).

And while some name changes are dramatic, others are deceptively subtle. In 2018, Macedonia changed its name to North Macedonia. It might seem like a small, nearly insignificant change, but it is not. The modification ended a decades-long dispute with Greece, which has a region by the same name, and paved the way for North Macedonia to join NATO.

Few Macedonians, though, use the new name, and that raises a philosophical question: if a country changes its name but no one utters it, was it really changed? Many Vietnamese still refer to Ho Chi Minh City as Saigon, and many Indians still call Mumbai Bombay. Writer Leeya Mehta is among them. “For me and my generation, we really pushed back against the name change,” she said. “It made no sense.” When she says she’s from Bombay, inevitably, a well-intentioned foreigner replies, “Don’t you mean Mumbai?” Indians, though, never “correct” her, she said. The city itself seems conflicted about its identity: to this day Mumbai is home to the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Bombay High Court.

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