Special Report

The Surprising Stories Behind 50 Country Names

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6. The Bahamas

It is commonly believed that these Atlantic islands just outside the Caribbean are named for the Spanish “baja mar,” or shallow sea. The name might also derive from an unknown term in the pre-Hispanic language of the Lucayans, the original inhabitants of the archipelago.

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7. Bangladesh

In 1947, when British rule in India ended, the country was divided along religious lines into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. The latter was split into two halves, 1,100 miles apart — West Pakistan and East Bengal, later renamed East Pakistan. East Pakistan became independent in 1971, and renamed itself Bangladesh from the Bengali words “Bangla,” for Bengali (the local language and culture), and “desh,” for country.

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8. Barbados

This Caribbean island takes its name from the Portuguese phrase “os barbados,” the bearded ones, most likely a reference to the bearded fig tree (Ficus citrifolia) that grows all over the island and has long hanging roots thought to resemble facial hair. (The tree is depicted on the Barbados coat of arms.)

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9. Belgium

This country was named for the Belgae, a Celtic or Celto-Germanic tribe occupying the region of Northern Gaul. When Julius Caesar famously declared that all Gaul was divided into three parts, he identified one part as being occupied by the Belgae, whom he called “the bravest” of the local tribes.

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10. Benin

Formerly called Dahomey, this West African nation took its modern name from the Bight of Benin, a bay off the coasts of Benin, Nigeria, Togo, and Ghana, which in turn was named after the historic kingdom of Benin, now within Nigeria. The name might refer to the Bini people, who were among the region’s original inhabitants, or it could stem from the Yoruba “ile-ibinu,” or land of argument, possibly a reference to local warfare.