In our dynamic world, identity encompasses not just individuals but also countries. Across history, nations have seen identity shifts, sometimes with significant name changes. These alterations in nomenclature are not merely superficial; they reflect profound political, cultural, and societal transformations that have shaped the course of nations.
This captivating journey through history explores 17 countries that have rebranded their identities through name changes. From the rise and fall of empires to decolonization and political reformation, these shifts in nomenclature provide a window into the complex tapestry of global history. Let us delve into the stories of nations that have rewritten their destinies by redefining their names.
The CEOWORLD Magazine highlights the intriguing history of Zimbabwe’s name change. Originally known as South Rhodesia in homage to the British colonizer Cecil Rhodes during the late 19th century, this renaming marked a significant departure from its colonial past. Rhodes, who once rhetorically questioned if a country’s name could ever change, saw his expectations shattered as Zimbabwe underwent a profound transformation.
Typically, countries retain their names as an intrinsic part of their identity and culture, making such changes exceptionally rare. However, a thorough review of government sources, including the official websites of the U.K. government and the U.S. Department of State, and other reputable online references, enabled the CEOWORLD magazine to compile a list of nations that have undergone the complex process of rebranding themselves through name changes.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, numerous countries have opted for new names, often driven by a desire to distance themselves from colonial legacies or to establish a fresh national identity. For instance, Turkey recently changed its name to Türkiye to bolster national pride and disassociate from the avian connotation. The Czech Republic adopted Czechia to boost its appeal as a tourist destination. Similarly, North Macedonia underwent a name change to resolve a dispute with Greece, where a region bearing the name Macedonia exists, and to facilitate its accession to NATO.
Administratively, renaming a country is a complex endeavor, but its success hinges on the acceptance and endorsement of its citizens. While some countries, such as Eswatini and Türkiye, have faced criticism for their name changes, others have viewed these changes as possible political diversions. The decision to modify a nation’s name is never made lightly due to its deep cultural and historical significance. Below is a compilation of the 17 countries that have embarked on this transformative journey by changing their names.
> Former name: Persia
> Year changed: 1935
In 1935, the Iranian government, inspired by the Nazis’ belief in ‘Aryan’ connections, urged its diplomatic partners to refer to the nation as ‘Iran’ instead of ‘Persia.’ This change aimed to signify a departure from the perceived influence of Britain and Russia. Following the Allied invasion in 1941 and the nationalization of the oil industry, the name ‘Iran’ gained widespread acceptance.
> Former name: Irish Free State
> Year changed: 1937
In late 1921, the Anglo-Irish Treaty marked Ireland’s path to independence after more than 300 years of English rule. This accord ended the war of independence and established the Irish Free State, encompassing 26 of the island’s 32 counties. The remaining six became Northern Ireland under British administration. In 1937, the Irish constitution renamed itself as Ireland (Éire in Irish) and declared it a republic in 1949.
> Former name: Siam
> Year changed: 1939
In 1939, Thailand transitioned from its previous name, Siam, a term possibly originating from a Sanskrit word with connotations of ‘darkness’ given by foreigners. This change, spearheaded by Plaek Phibunsongkhram, or Phibun, a military officer turned dictator and prime minister, was part of a broader modernization campaign. Its objective was to showcase Thailand’s native culture and language, countering the growing influence of the Chinese community. The exact derivation of ‘Thai,’ which might mean ‘people,’ ‘human being,’ or ‘free man,’ remains a topic of debate.
> Former name: Bechuanaland Protectorate
> Year changed: 1966
Botswana, named after its main ethnic group, the Tswana, is a landlocked country in southern Africa, surrounded by Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The nation is renowned for its diamond mines. Originally established as a British protectorate in 1885 and named ‘Bechuana,’ an anglicized version of ‘Tswana,’ the nation discarded this inaccurate name upon gaining independence.
- Sri Lanka
> Former name: Ceylon
> Year changed: 1972
The British called this island off the southern coast of India Ceylon, derived from an old Arabic name, Saheelan, with a disputed origin. In 1972, the nation changed its name to the ‘Free Sovereign Independent Republic of Sri Lanka’ and, six years later, to the ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.’ ‘Lanka’ was the ancient name of the island, and ‘Sri’ is an honorific meaning ‘venerable.’
> Former name: Dahomey
> Year changed: 1975
An African nation on the Atlantic coast, Benin takes its name from a West African kingdom that rose to prominence within the present-day nation during the 15th century. Dahomey – whose name might derive from the words for ‘snake’s belly’ in the language of the indigenous Fon people – became a French colony in 1872 and achieved independence in 1960. Its leaders changed its name to Benin in 1975, borrowing the name of the Bight of Benin, the bay on which a portion of it sits, whose name in turn references the Bini people in neighboring Nigeria.
> Former name: Surinam
> Year changed: 1978
Suriname, situated on the northeastern coast of South America, derives its name from the Surinen people who inhabited the region when Europeans first arrived. The suffix ‘-ame’ may originate from a local word meaning ‘river’ or ‘creek mouth.’ British settlers, who established the first European colony along the Suriname River in 1630, dropped the final ‘e,’ which later became the standard English spelling. In the 17th century, the Dutch took control of the territory, using it for sugar exports, and it became part of the Dutch Guiana colonies. Suriname gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, and its official name spelling was changed to ‘Suriname’ in 1978.
> Former name: Republic of Rhodesia
> Year changed: 1980
Zimbabwe, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa, was once Southern Rhodesia, named after Cecil Rhodes. It declared independence from Great Britain in 1965, becoming Rhodesia and later the Republic of Rhodesia, still under white minority rule until 1979. In the early 1960s, Black nationalists began using the name Zimbabwe, possibly meaning ‘stone houses,’ derived from the medieval city of Great Zimbabwe, now a World Heritage Site. After UN sanctions and a guerrilla uprising led to free elections in 1979, the Black majority assumed control, and ‘Zimbabwe’ became the official name.
- Burkina Faso
> Former name: Republic of Upper Volta
> Year changed: 1984
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, was formerly a part of French West Africa, referred to as Upper Volta (or Haut-Volta), named after the Volta River. It attained self-governance as the Republic of Upper Volta in 1958 while under French rule and achieved complete independence two years later. In 1984, the president at the time, Thomas Sankara, renamed it Burkina Faso to distance the country from its colonial history. The name incorporates elements from various local languages, symbolizing the ‘land of the honest men.’
- Democratic Republic of Congo
> Former name: Republic of Zaïre
> Year changed: 1997
In central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is the second-largest country by land area, only surpassed by Algeria. In 1885, Belgian King Leopold II established the Congo Free State as his personal domain. In 1908, assuming control, Belgium retained the name Belgian Congo until gaining independence in 1960. In 1965, an army officer named Mobutu Sese Seko seized power and established a dictatorship. He renamed the country Zaïre, after a name for the Congo River. Yet, Mobutu lost authority in 1997, and the new head of state, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, granted the nation its present name.
- Cabo Verde
> Former name: Cape Verde
> Year changed: 2013
In 2013, this West African island nation officially adopted its Portuguese name, Cabo Verde, replacing the English one, Cape Verde. The Portuguese first colonized the archipelago in 1462, aiming to use the islands as a base for their sailors to access West African trade, including the slave trade. Whether spelled as Cape Verde or Cabo Verde, the name originates from ‘Cap-Vert,’ signifying ‘green cape.’ This term originated from a lush Senegalese promontory east of the islands, which the Portuguese had named Cabo Verde when they discovered it in 1444.
> Former name: Czech Republic
> Year changed: 2016
The Czech Republic emerged after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992, resulting in the formation of both the Czech Republic and the Republic of Slovakia. In April 2016, the leaders of the former nation decided to change its name to Czechia. They believed this shorter name would better attract international attention and foreign investment.
> Former name: Swaziland
> Year changed: 2018
In celebration of its 50th anniversary of independence from Great Britain, King Mswati III transformed Swaziland into Eswatini (sometimes written as eSwatini). This decision, made without consulting the populace, faced opposition from some citizens. Both names originate from the indigenous Swazi people, named after an early ruler, but the new name is in the Swazi language. Like other African renaming efforts, it aimed to break from the colonial past and avoid confusion with Switzerland.
- North Macedonia
> Former name: Macedonia
> Year changed: 2019
The political landscape of the Balkans is often intricate and volatile, as exemplified by the name change from Macedonia to North Macedonia. Initially, Macedonia retained its name after the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, sparking a conflict with Greece due to its northern region bearing the same name. This disagreement posed challenges for the NATO membership of Macedonia, which the alliance pursued to maintain stability in the Balkans. Greece withdrew its opposition in 2019 after Macedonia agreed to the clarifying name change.
> Former name: Burma
> Year changed: 2019
For years, the international community referred to this Southeast Asian nation as Burma, named after the predominant Burman ethnic group. However, in 1989, after a military coup, the ruling junta abruptly altered the country’s name to Myanmar, an ancient term of uncertain origin for the nation. Due to the government’s repressive actions, the rest of the world initially persisted in using the name Burma before eventually adopting the new name.
- The Netherlands
> Former name: Holland
> Year changed: 2020
Holland was the former official designation for this Western European region within the Low Country. However, in January 2020, the Dutch government introduced a new policy, declaring that the country should always be known as The Netherlands, its official title. This change is a component of an extensive national rebranding strategy focused on enhancing tourism management. The term ‘Holland’ refers specifically to two Dutch provinces, prompting Dutch authorities to argue that the official name change represents the nation more accurately.
> Former name: Turkey
> Year changed: 2022
Turkey is the most recent nation to undergo a name change, adopting the name Türkiye (pronounced approximately as ‘tur-key-yay’). President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan believes the new name better represents Turkish culture and values. Additionally, officials from the country have mentioned that the change reflects their desire to distance themselves from the association with the bird symbolizing North American Thanksgiving and the English slang meaning of the word, which conveys a sense of being a loser or dud.
While reading about the 17 countries that have undergone name changes, we witness the profound transformation of national identities. These changes, like Zimbabwe’s shift from South Rhodesia, demonstrate the enduring power of a name to signify evolving aspirations and renewed beginnings.
In our globalized world, these changes reveal a nation’s adaptability and quest for a fresh identity. In conclusion, these cases underscore the symbolic significance of a country’s name, serving as a testament to the dynamic nature of culture and history in our interconnected world.
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