Countries are kind of like people. Every one of them has a name.
Just like people, sometimes they change their names.
The are a host of reasons why countries change their names, and for every country that does change its name, there is a different story behind it.
Learn more about the countries that were formerly known as other countries and why they did it on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
As there are a bunch of countries whose name changes, we might as well just right into it with the latest country to change names: North Macedonia.
As I mentioned in the introduction, every country that changes its name does so for a slightly different reason.
In the case of North Macedonia, it has to do with history.
When most people think of Macedonia, they think of the Macedonian Empire, Philip II, and his son Alexander the Great.
The Macedonian Empire was pretty short-lived. It eventually became a Roman province. About 1,500 years ago, Slavic people migrated into the Balkans, occupying much, but not all, of the land which used to be Macedonia.
When the nation of Yugoslavia was formed, one of the constituent republics was called Macedonia.
However, Greece also has a province called Macedonia, which is located on the other part of the land, which used to be ancient Macedonia.
So long as Macedonia was a part of Yugoslavia, this wasn’t that big of an issue. However, when Yugoslavia broke up in the 90s, Macedonia declared itself independent and kept the name The Republic of Macedonia.
Greece objected when they tried to join the United Nations, and Macedonia was forced to go by “the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia.”
I should note this was not recognized as the name of the country. This was just a descriptive phrase to refer to the country.
Here is the best metaphor I can think of to describe the situation. Imagine being invited to a wedding dinner where everyone has a name card located at their seat. One of those people, instead of having their name, the card simply says “ex-girlfriend.”
That was basically what the situation was like at the United Nations.
Moreover, both countries were trying to claim the legacy of Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire.
I don’t know if this is still the case, but they had these two enormous and rather gaudy statues of Alexander and Philip in the middle of the main square in Skopje.
Greece, being, you know, Greece, claimed that they were heirs of Alexander because the ancient Macedonians were a Hellenistic people, not Slavic.
This name of the country became a huge issue as Macedonia wanted to join NATO and other international organizations, which was being blocked by Greece. This wasn’t an issue that they were going to war over, but it was a big issue.
The eventual compromise was that in 2019 the Republic of Macedonia agreed to change its name to North Macedonia, which is a recognition of the Greek province of Macedonia.
North Macedonia joined NATO in 2020.
In addition, North Macedonia has also said it will review the situation of their statues and things honoring Hellenistic culture.
The other European country which is sort of changing its name is the country you probably know as the Czech Republic.
Consider for a moment the naming scheme of many of the countries in south and central Europe.
Austrians are from Austria.
Serbians are from Serbia.
Slovenes are from Slovenia.
Bosnians are from Bosnia.
Croats are from Croatia.
When the nation of Czechoslovakia broke up in the early 90s, the Slovakians followed the scheme and created the new country of Slovakia.
…and the Czechs, they were in the new…Czech Republic.
Which, you have to admit, doesn’t really roll off the tongue like other countries.
When they became independent, they actually encouraged the name Czechia for use in English. However, it never caught on.
Lately, the Czechs have been conducting a campaign to get people to start using Czechia. All of the various international bodies which cover official names all recognize Czechia.
Personally, I’ve been using Czechia more and more because I do find it easier to say than “Czech Republic,” which is just awkward.
The other European country that has sort of announced a change is Turkey.
They want people to start using the traditional pronouncing and spelling of the country, which is Türkiye, spelled T-ü-r-k-i-y-e.
The reason for this change literally has to do with the association with the bird. Also, one of the dictionary definitions of the word is literally “a stupid, foolish, or inept person.”
So the goal was to try to rebrand the country and improve national pride.
This isn’t the first time Turkey has tried to do this. They made an attempt back in the 1980s, but it never caught on.
As of right now, the official name in international organizations is Turkiye, but getting popular acceptance of the name is going to take time, and they might face the same problem as Czechia.
In Africa, in 2018, the Kingdom of Swaziland changed its name to eSwatini.
eSwatini was the traditional name of the country, and it has been referred to by this name within the country for a long time.
The name Swaziland was given to the country by the British in the early 20th century. It was named after Swati ethnic group that lived there and the Swazi language, which is what is predominately spoken.
So the name change was just reverting back to what the people who lived there called the country and getting rid of the name which was given to them by the British.
Unlike North Macedonia, Czechia, and Turkiye, which are modifications of the previous name, this is a total change. However, they still have the issue of public adoption, which can often take decades.
Another country that totally changed its name, but for completely different reasons, is Myanmar which used to, and still sort of is, known as Burma.
In 1989, the military government in Burma announced that they were changing the name of the country to Myanmar.
Unlike eSwatini, this wasn’t a case of changing a name that was made up by Europeans.
The British did call the country Burma, which was the name it took upon independence. The name comes from the primary ethnic group in the country, the Burman.
The word Burma is believed to have come from the word Brahma.
The problem is that the country is made up of more than just the Burman people, who constitute 58% of the population.
After ethnic riots which took place in the late 1980s, the military government took the step to change the name of the country to Myanmar.
Myanmar is considered a more literary form of Burma. In fact, both names are believed to derive from the same original word. The meaning of Myanmar today means “fast and strong people.”
So, the military government changed the name to Myanmar to try to be more inclusive of all the ethnic groups in the country.
However, unlike the other countries I mentioned, both Myanmar and Burma are still used interchangeably today. While the country is officially Myanmar, it colloquially goes by both names.
Many countries never officially changed how they refer to the country because they didn’t want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the government. The United States still calls its embassy the US Embassy in Burma.
In 1997, the government of Mobutu Sese Seko collapsed in the country which was known as Zaire.
The name of the country was changed to Zaire in 1971 when Mobuto inaugurated a campaign for people to adopt more authentically African names. Zaire, oddly enough, was based on a Portuguese name for the Congo River, which is the name of the river in English.
The previous name of the country was the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
When Mobutu was overthrown, the country reverted back to the original name it took when it became independent, in a repudiation of the Mobutu regime.
In 1975, after the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, they changed the name of the country to Kampuchea.
Kampuchea is just the word for Khmer in the Khmer language. Cambodia is the Anglicization of the French word for Khmer. In fact, in the Khmer language, the country is still known as Kampuchea.
However, the association with the Khmer Rouge made the name so unpalatable that they went back to Cambodia for use in English.
A host of countries changed their names after they became independent after World War II as they were originally their names when they were colonies.
Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso.
Dahomey changed its name to Benin.
Rhodesia changed its name to Zimbabwe.
Abyssinia became Ethiopia.
Ceyon became Sri Lanka.
Two African countries have abandoned their English names to get people to refer to them in French and Portuguese.
The Ivory Coast now prefers to be known as Cote d’Ivoire, and Cape Verde now wants to be known as Cabo Verde.
I want to end with two of the more significant name changes which took place in the 1930s.
The first of which was the change from Siam to Thailand. In 1932 there was a bloodless coup in the country which changed the country from a absolute monarchy to a on where the monarchy only ruled in name. In 1939, the military dictator changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand.
The move was originally intended as an anti-Chinese move as Chinese businessmen had become extremely rich and influential in the country. By changing the name of the country, it put the emphasis on the Thais who were the predominant linguistic and ethnic group.
It briefly changed back to Siam and then reverted back to Thailand permanently in 1948.
The other big name change in the 1930s was the change from Persia to Iran.
Persia was actually a name given to the country and people by the Greeks.
The word Iran actually goes back several thousand years and is based on the word Arya, which is the land of the Aryans. For centuries, the people who lived there referred to themselves as some variation of Iran, including Eran, and Arian.
In 1935, the then Shah of Persia changed the name of the country to be more inclusive of the other ethnic groups that lived there beyond the main ethnic group, the Persians. Iran also consists of Kurds, Turks, Balochs, and Arabs.
The one country which didn’t acknowledge the change immediately was the United Kingdom, which felt that Iran was too similar to the neighboring country of Iraq.
Persia is now a historical term, and I’ll be doing a future episode on all various Persian Empires throughout history because there were a bunch of them.
A country changing its name doesn’t take place every year, but it also isn’t unheard of. We also may not have seen the end of it.
There has been a low-level discussion for years in the Philippines about changing the name of the country. The country was named after king Philip II of Spain, which really isn’t relevant to the country today.
If you are like me and collect old maps and globes, then knowing the old names of countries is a great way to check the age.
Shakespeare said that a rose by any other name will smell just as sweet. That might be true, but roses don’t have to deal with neighboring countries and differing internal ethnic groups.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener markcanuck over at Apple Podcasts in Canada. He write:
Informative. Concise. Interesting.
Mark from Canada here. Love the topics and conciseness of the podcast. Not too fancy with a bunch of overdone editing. Just the right length for the drive to work and to not get lost in the topic. Excellent narration. Perfect for engineers… get to the point and move on. Thanks for podcast.
Thanks, Mark! The number of listeners in Canada is growing. The next time I visit to continue my quest of visiting every national park in Canada, I might have to do a listener meet up or maybe do a live show.
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