Is it Burma or Myanmar? Countries and cities that have changed their names

What's in a name?

Would the world feel the same way about Joaquin Phoenix if he'd stuck with his birth name, Joaquin Rafael Bottom? Or Marilyn Monroe, christened Norma Jean Mortensen?

And so too cities, towns and even countries change their names. Sometimes it's a tweak – India's Mysore to Mysuru for example – sometimes a change that reflects a major power shift. Constantinople became Istanbul while the Soviet Union, or what was left of it, reverted to Russia.

Names bestowed by colonial powers can feel slightly less than comfortable when independence finally comes along, which explains why Portuguese East Africa became Mozambique and German South West Africa is now Namibia.

Here's a selection of places that we once knew by a different name, and why we now call them something else.

Burma – Myanmar

In 1989, following a bloody coup, the ruling military government made a push to establish a new sense of national identity and to mark a separation from colonial rule by ditching names imposed by British rulers. Burma changed its name to Myanmar, Rangoon became Yangon, the Irrawaddy River became the Ayeyarwady, the hilltown of Maymyo became Pyin U Lwin.

However, Burma's democracy movement continued to refer to the country as "Burma", a rejection of the military junta rather than a harking back to the colonial era. In fact both names have long been used to describe their country by ethnic Burmans, who make up the majority of the population.

Myanmar is the more formal, written form while Burma is the colloquial. Since the name Myanmar was imposed by an illegitimate, unelected military junta, some countries and many individuals chose to demonstrate their opposition to the junta by continuing to refer to the country as Burma.

Cambodia – Kampuchea – Cambodia

Buddhist monk at Angkor Wat. Ancient Khmer architecture, Ta Prohm temple ruins hidden in jungles. Popular travel destination at Siem Reap, Cambodia - Image SunFeb10Cambodia - Cambodia - Sue Williams
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Angkor Whatitsname? Cambodia has changed names several times. Photo: Shutterstock

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For more than 1000 years the country we know as Cambodia was Kampuja. Under French colonial rule, that became Cambodge, which from the mouth of a francophone sounds about the same as Kampuja from the lips of a Khmer. That name was always tricky for non-French speakers who referred to the country as Cambodia.

During the troubled years when the country was run by the Khmer Rouge, followed by the Vietnamese backed government, the country morphed into the Khmer Republic, then Democratic Kampuchea, the People's Republic of Kampuchea, the State of Cambodia and finally came to rest as the Kingdom of Cambodia.

Rhodesia – Zimbabwe

Rainbow over Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, sunny day in Africa
 sunsep2africa - Africa: Second Honeymoon - Nina Karnikowski 
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Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Photo: Shutterstock

Originally Southern Rhodesia, to draw the line between it and Northern Rhodesia, which became Zambia upon independence in 1964, "Rhodesia" was a tribute to the enthusiastic British empire builder Cecil Rhodes who commandeered much of this region as a corporate fiefdom in the late 1800s.

When the country became independent in 1980 the ruling ZANU-PF party was keen to shuck off the remnants of its colonial inheritance. After a brief transition period when it was known as Zimbabwe Rhodesia, followed by the "British Colony of Southern Rhodesia", the country became Zimbabwe. The name comes from the ancient ruined city of Great Zimbabwe, the capital of a large empire that flourished from the 13th to the 15th century, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

India's cities

Beautiful view of colorful gopura in the Hindu Kapaleeshwarar Temple,chennai, Tamil Nadu, South India SunJul22coverhard - Too-Hard Destinations - Brian Johnston
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Madras is now Chennai. Photo: Shutterstock

With the exception of Delhi, every major Indian city has changed its name over the past few years. Bombay is now Mumbai, Calcutta is Kolkata, Madras is Chennai – and that's just for starters. States too. Mysore State is now Karnataka, Madras State is Tamil Nadu. Some of these changes were made to realign Anglicised cities' names with local pronunciation – Calcutta to Kolkata for example, or Pondicherry, now Puducherry.

Others are a complete reworking such as Madras, named by the British after the fishing village to the north of Fort St George, the original British settlement sited here. "Chennai" – the new name for the city, means "face" in the Tamil language and refers to the Chennakesava Perumal Temple, dedicated to the city's patron deity, therefore the "face" of the city.

Since about 2015 Delhi has been stripping the names of British governors, generals and viceroys from its streets and replacing them with the names of Indian freedom fighters, painters, musicians and historic figures.

Ceylon – Sri Lanka

The palace of Presidential Secretariat Office located opposite the scenic Lion fountain on Galle Main Road, stretching along the coast, Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Fort district
TIP SatDec8ThreeMin - 3 MINUTE GUIDE COLOMBO - Louise Southerden
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Sri Lanka's capital Colombo. Photo: Shutterstock

"Ceylon" was the name given to the teardrop-shaped island by the British, who ruled it from 1815 to 1948. "Lanka" predates that by about 2000 years, the name for the island in the Ramayana, one of the classics of Indian literature. The origin of "Ceylon" is a lot more obscure, possibly a reference to an Old Tamil word.

The Romans knew it as Serendivis , Arab traders as Serandib, the Persians as Serendip from which we get the word serendipity, to make a happy discovery by chance, surely the prettiest name ever bestowed on a country.

"Sri Lanka" – the "Sri" is an honorific – was introduced during the push for independence early in the 20th century. The country adopted the name "The Republic of Sri Lanka" in 1972 and later, the "Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka".

Republic of North Macedonia

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras , left, embraces his North Macedonian counterpart Zoran Zaev, during a Join news conference and after their meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia, on Tuesday, April 2, 2019. Greek Prime minister has arrived in North Macedonia, the first ever official visit of a Greek leader to neighboring country after decades of strained relations between two nations burdened over the name

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, left, embraces his North Macedonian counterpart, Zoran Zaev, after a meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia. Tsipras' visit in early April was the first official visit of a Greek leader to its neighbour after decades of strained relations over the name "Macedonia". Photo: AP

Once part of Yugoslavia, this Balkan country became the Republic of Macedonia when Yugoslavia disintegrated in the early 1990s.

The problem was that Greece has its own Macedonia in the north of the country, and the name game has been a running sore in relations ever since. Most recently the country adopted the name Republic of North Macedonia after a referendum in 2018 and the Greeks have been partially pacified, although the grumbling goes on.

Swaziland – Kingdom of eSwatini

In 2018 King Mswati III of Swaziland, the last of Africa's absolute monarchs, declared that his country would henceforth be known as the Kingdom of eSwatini, a name for the digital era if ever there was one. The name means "Land of the Swazis" and apparently the king was sick of his country being confused with Switzerland.

Apart from the fact that both are landlocked and they have mountains and trains – far fewer in the case of eSwatini – there aren't too many similarities that would lead to confusion between abundantly rich, chilly and mostly white Switzerland and subsistence-economy eSwatini.

Names that should never change

Some names bring a smile to the lips, and long may they live. Who could resist Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (originally called Hot Springs, it changed its name as part of a game show promotion in 1950), Bastardo in Italy's Umbria, Peculiar in Missouri or Boring, Oregon?

Looking to add some sparkle to your love life with a getaway to a place with a suggestive name? How about the French protectorate of Ile de la Passion off the coast of Mexico, although it's an uninhabited coral island.

Or perhaps Lovelady in Texas or Lustin, Belgium, not forgetting Lusty in Somerset and Desire, Pennsylvania. Need to up the ante? Well there's always Intercourse, in the Amish country of Pennsylvania, and Sexmoan in the Philippines, regrettably now known as Sasmuan. So too the Beach of Passionate Love at the top end of Malaysia's east coast, now rechristened Moonlight Beach. And if it all falls through you can always console yourself in Loveless, Alabama.

See also: The 22 places you're probably pronouncing incorrectly

See also: The ten weird capital cities you didn't know about

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