Confusing Country Names

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Podcast Transcript

Countries, like people, have names. Sometimes those names are long and sometimes they have a shorter version of it for common use. 

There are some countries, however, that often have multiple names, and the names can be radically different from each other. They might want everyone to call it by one name, or by a certain name in a certain language, but no one does. 

Why do some countries have multiple names, and does it really make a difference? 

Learn more about countries with confusing or multiple names on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


I might as well start this discussion with my country, the United States. 

I previously did a full episode on the naming of the country and how some people wanted to call it something totally different like Fredonia. 

What I want to talk about today is the use of the term “Americans” to describe people from the United States.  There are many people, often in South America, who bristle at the fact that Americans are called Americans and that the United States is called America when there is an entire hemisphere called the Americas, and there are two continents called North and South America. 

Why should people from the United States get to hog the term? After all, there is no one country that gets to hog African, Asian, or European.

This all goes back to quirks of history and language. 

Very early when Europe, in particular Spain, was setting up colonies in the new world, the term America and Americans was used generically for everything. 

Over time, individual colonies began to develop their own identities. 

In England, they referred to their colonies collectively as the American Colonies, referring to their British colonies, not the colonies of other countries. 

When the United States became independent, the name they picked was the generic United States of America, the demonym they selected was American. They were the first independent country in the Americas, so they just sort of got to pick first. (By the way, a demonym is a word used to describe people from a place)

Also, the new country wasn’t a former colony, it was a collection of former colonies, so then they couldn’t use Virginian, New Yorker, etc. 


As other colonies, primarily Spanish colonies, became independent, they tended to go with their colonial name.  

Also, there is literally only one country in the world with the word “America” in its name, and that is the United States of America. However, the US isn’t the only county with the words “United States” in its name. 

The official name of Mexico is Estados Unidos Mexicanos, or in English, the United States of Mexico. 

So, yeah, it might be a bit weird that one country calls itself after a whole continent, but that’s just history and naming. 

However, there are some similar cases. People from the Central African Republic are formally called “Central Africans” which is also a terribly non-original name that could refer to people from outside that particular country. 

This, however, is not even close to the most confusing names for people from countries.

Probably the most confusing is what you call people from The Republic of Congo versus people from the Democratic Republic of Congo. 

People from the former country are known as Congolese and people from the later country and known as……Congolese. 

I once met a man who was working with the United Nations when I visited East Timor. He said he was from the Congo. Almost the moment he said it, he knew what I was going to ask him, and he followed up with Congo-Kinshasa. 

In addition to calling themselves the exact same thing, the capitals of the two countries are directly across the river from each other. It is normal to refer to either Congo-Brazzaville, which is the Republic of Congo, or Congo-Kinshasa, which is the larger Democratic Republic of Congo. 

This is similar to the solution to the word Guinea, which is used in four different countries, three of which are in West Africa. 

During the age of colonization, there was French Guinea, Portuguese Guinea, and Spanish Guinea. 

The first and largest of the three countries to become independent was French Guinea. Because they got to pick first, they just went with the name Guinea. However, just as in the Congo, they were and often still are referenced by their capital and are informally called, Guinea-Conakry.

Later, Portuguese Guinea formalized this naming convention and called themselves Guinea-Bissau, again after their capital. 

Finally, Spanish Guinea went in an entirely different direction and called itself Equatorial Guinea. 

People from Guinea are just called Guineans, and people from the other guineas are called Bissau-Guineans or Equatorial Guineans. 

Another odd naming scheme is that of Great Britain, which technically is not a country. 

The official name of the country is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Great Britain is actually the name of an island that contains three of the four constituent countries of the United Kingdom: England, Wales, and Scotland.

People from the United Kingdom are called British, even though people from Northern Ireland do not actually live on the island of Great Britain.

To make it even more confusing, if Scotland should ever become independent in the future, they would still, geographically at least, be British because they will still be on the island of Great Britain. 

Sometimes what we call a country is an issue of language. For example, have you ever found it odd that the Czech Republic is called the Czech Republic? The “republic” part is sort of odd, and no other country in Europe uses it. 

They have actually requested that people not use the term Czech Republic anymore in English, but rather Czechia. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense with respect to other European country naming conventions. 

Slovaks live in Slovakia. Slovenes live in Slovenia. Albanians live in Albania. Austrians live in Austria. So it should follow that Czechs would live in Czechia. 

Another country that formally changed its name is Myanmar. Myanmar used to be called Burma, and the name was formally changed in 1989. However, both Myanmar and Burma are used and both are considered acceptable. 

Myanmar is more formal and literary and Burma is more informal.

One of the big reasons for the change is that Burmese people, which make up the majority of the people in the country, are not the only people in the country. 

Likewise, the country of Iran used to be known as Persia. The name was changed in 1935. The name Iran was actually one which had been used internally going back to at least the 3rd century. It was often spelled E-r-a-n. 

The word Persia was actually derived from Greek and is what is called an exonym. An exonym is a word used for a place by people who are not from that place. 

Iran is an endonym, meaning that is what the people who live in that place call it.

When the change was first made, Iran and Persia were used interchangeably, but over time, Iran has become standard, and now the word Persia is mostly relegated to the historical empires. 

Speaking of exonyms and endonyms, the country which probably has the most is Germany

In German, the country is called Deutschland, which comes from the High German word diutisc which is derived from a word meaning ‘folk”.

In English, we call the country Germany based on the Latin term Germania. 

In France and other Romance-speaking countries, the name of Germany comes from the Alemanni tribe. In Spanish it is Alemania. 

Other countries refer to Germany based on the Saxon tribe. In Finnish, Germany is known as Saksa. 

In Polish and other Slavic countries,  the country is named after the Nemeti tribe. In Polish, which is right next door to Germany, is ??Niemcy. 

Then there are still other countries that use a name based on Prussia. In Tahitian, Germany is called Purutia. 

Place names are sort of weird, and I’ve only really scratched the surface. Once you start digging into the origins of names, and how they’ve changed over time, you can actually get a much better understanding of how they came to be. 


Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett. 

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An oasis of Intelligence

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