Often we adjust to calling a city by its local name. Most will now say Mumbai instead of Bombay, or Beijing instead of Peking. But there are some cities which English-speakers stubbornly refuses to adjust to, calling them something that often bears little resemblance to the real name. These include…
The Bavarian city we call Munich is called München in German. This is one of several exonyms – names for a geographical place used only outside that place. It's by no means a solely English-speaking trait, and this renaming of cities has happened all over Europe. The French call London "Londres'' and the Italians call it "Londra'' for example.
In the case of Munich, however, the English version is closer to the original – Munichen, roughly meaning "monks' forum". It's just that it has changed in German over the years.
Vienna, Austria Photo: Alamy
Some exonyms have a much more complicated backstory, however. The endonym – the name used locally, but not elsewhere – is Wien. But the settlement was originally called Vindobona, a melange of Celtic and Roman. How this became Wien is disputed, with no one single convincing explanation.
There is no W in the Italian language, however, so the Italians called the city Vienna, and the English went along with the Italian version.
Cologne, Germany Photo: Alamy
Most of the time, however, the English version derives from the French version. This is the case with Naples, Rome and Belgrade, but most notably Cologne. In German, it's Köln. In Roman times, it was called Colonia Agrippina, meaning "city of Agrippina". The French language only uses the letter K in loan words, hence deviating more towards the Latin than the German name for the city.
Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: Alamy
The Thai capital has an absurdly long official name, which is usually shortened in official documents to Krung Thep Maha Nakhon. Or, by normal Thais, to Krung Thep. Bangkok did exist west of the Chao Phraya river, but King Rama I moved it to the more easily defensible eastern bank in 1782. He renamed the capital in the process, and the name has undergone several iterations since. Perhaps because there have been so many iterations, the rest of the world has just ignored it all and stuck with the original name from when the city was on the west bank.
Prague, Czech Republic. Photo: Alamy
The Czechs call their own capital Praha, which roughly means "threshold" in the Czech language. But Prague hasn't been under Czech control for much of its history. It was part of the Habsburg Empire for a long time, and German was the language of the court. German-speakers are just as bad as English-speakers for renaming places to make them easier to say, and the Habsburgs preferred Prag to Praha. The English version comes from the French interpretation of the German version.
Casablanca, Morocco. Photo: Alamy
Casablanca was built on the ruins of a place called Anfa, but the Portuguese and later Spanish had a big hand in its creation and rule. Casablanca is a Spanish name, meaning "white house". After an 18th century earthquake flattened the city, however, the local sultan rebuilt it and called it Al-Dār al-Bayḍā. This also means "white house", but in Arabic. It's the official name of the city today, although many locals call it Casa, and the rest of the world has stuck to Casablanca.
Florence, Italy Photo: Alamy
When Florence was founded in 59BC, it was called Florentia. And this Latin, original name is the basis for what the city is called in other languages. In German, it's Florenz. In Spanish, it's Florencia, and so on.
But the locals call the city Firenze, and that's because the Italian language – particularly the Florentine vernacular – took over from Latin. It went through stages of being called Fiorentia and Fiorenze. The English version, therefore, is closer to the original.
Mexico City, Mexico
Mexico City Photo: Alamy
Mexico City is older than the country of Mexico, and is surrounded by the state of Mexico. Yet, up until 2016, it was officially known as Distrito Federal. This is similar to the District of Columbia in the US – the area that's the seat of government, but isn't part of any state. The drive for Distrito Federal to become a state led to the name change, and the name chosen was the one the rest of the world uses. Mexicans still call it Distrito Federal or DF, however.
Cairo, Egypt Photo: Alamy
In Arabic, Al Najm Al Qahir is the conquering or vanquishing star – aka, Mars. Mars was allegedly rising when the current Egyptian capital was founded, hence the official name of Cairo is Al-Qāhirah. Approximately, this means the vanquishing city or place of Mars. As with many names of Arabic origin, the Europeans mangled this until it came out as Caire in French, Kairo in German and Cairo in English.
Doha, Qatar Photo: Alamy
Another excellent example of mangled Anglicisation of Arabic places is Doha, the capital of Qatar. In Arabic, it's Ad-Dawḥah. But Arabic script doesn't transcribe perfectly to Latin script, so you can end up with several different spellings of the original. Sometimes the translated names drop the Al or Ad in front of place name, other times they incorporate it, as with Algiers – locally known as Al-Jazā'ir.
See also: The 10 best city walks to do right now