Special Report

17 Countries That Have Changed Their Names

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> Former name: Persia
> Year changed: 1935

In 1935 the Iranian government requested that those countries with whom it had diplomatic relations start calling the nation Iran instead of Persia. The idea allegedly originated with the Iranian ambassador to Germany, influenced by the Nazis, who had recently assumed power. Nazi Germany was seeking good relations with countries of “Aryan” blood, and it believed Iran was one of them. “Iran” is a cognate of “Aryan,” and derived from it, and Iranians hoped the change would signal a shift away from what was considered the disadvantageous influence of Great Britain and Russia. After the Allies invaded the country in 1941 and nationalized the oil industry, the name became generally accepted.

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> Former name: Irish Free State
> Year changed: 1937

Ireland began to shake off more than 300 years of English rule with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of late 1921. The accord ended the war of independence and established the Irish Free State, consisting of 26 of the island’s 32 counties. (The rest became Northern Ireland, administered by the British.) The Irish constitution of 1937 officially renamed the country Ireland – Éire in Irish. Ireland was declared a republic in 1949, and is sometimes referred to as the Republic of Ireland – but just plain Ireland remains its official name.

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> Former name: Siam
> Year changed: 1939

Thailand’s name was changed from Siam – a name possibly derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “dark,” given to it by foreigners – in 1939 by Plaek Phibunsongkhram, known commonly as Phibun. An army officer who became the country’s dictatorial prime minister, Phibun was a nationalist who sought the change as part of a modernization campaign and to help promote the country’s indigenous culture and language as a rebuke to its increasingly influential Chinese community. Various sources disagree on the exact derivation of “Thai,” which might mean “people,” “human being,” or “free man.”

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> Former name: Bechuanaland Protectorate
> Year changed: 1966

Botswana – meaning “land of the Tswana,” the country’s main ethnic group – is a landlocked country in southern Africa bordered by Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, and is famous for its diamond mines. When the British established it as a protectorate in 1885, they named it for the “Bechuana” – an anglicized version of “Tswana.” The nation threw off this inaccurate version of the word when it became independent.

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Sri Lanka
> Former name: Ceylon
> Year changed: 1972

The British termed this island off the southern coast of India Ceylon, based on an old Arabic name for it, Saheelan, a word of disputed origin. The nation changed its name in 1972 to the “Free Sovereign Independent Republic of Sri Lanka.” Six years later, it was changed again to the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” Lanka was the ancient name of the island and “sri” is an honorific meaning “venerable.”

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