Special Report

17 Countries That Have Changed Their Names

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Benin
> Former name: Dahomey
> Year changed: 1975

An African nation on the Atlantic coast, Benin had been called Dahomey, after a West African kingdom that rose to prominence in the 15th century to occupy part of the present-day nation. Dahomey – whose name might derive from the words for “snake’s belly” in the language of the indigenous Fon people – became a French colony in 1872 and achieved independence in 1960. Its leaders changed its name to Benin in 1975, borrowing the name of the Bight of Benin, the bay on which a portion of it sits, whose name in turn references the Bini people in neighboring Nigeria.

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Suriname
> Former name: Surinam
> Year changed: 1978

Suriname is located on the northeastern coast of South America. Its name apparently refers to the Surinen people, who lived in the area when Europeans first arrived. The suffix “-ame” might come from a local word meaning “river” or “creek mouth.” British settlers, who in 1630 founded the first European colony along the Suriname River, spelled without its final “e” and this became the standard English rendering. In the 17th century, the territory was taken over by the Dutch, who used it to export sugar. It became part of a group of colonies called Dutch Guiana. The nation gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975, and the official spelling of its name was changed to “Suriname” in 1978.

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Zimbabwe
> Former name: Republic of Rhodesia
> Year changed: 1980

Zimbabwe, a landlocked country in southeastern Africa, occupies the territory of what was once the British colony of Southern Rhodesia – named for the imperialist politician and entrepreneur Cecil Rhodes. After it declared independence from Great Britain in 1965, it became known as simply Rhodesia and then the Republic of Rhodesia, but it remained under white minority control until 1979. In the early 1960s, Black nationalists began using the name Zimbabwe – which may mean “stone houses,” and comes from Great Zimbabwe, a medieval city in the region that is now a World Heritage Site. After UN sanctions and a guerrilla uprising led to free elections in 1979 and the Black majority took power, the name became official.

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Burkina Faso
> Former name: Republic of Upper Volta
> Year changed: 1984

A small landlocked country in West Africa, Burkina Faso was formerly a part of French West Africa called Upper Volta (or Haut-Volta), after the Volta River. It became the self-governing Republic of Upper Volta under the French in 1958 and two years later won full independence. In 1984, its president at the time, Thomas Sankara, renamed it Burkina Faso, to help distance his nation from its colonial past. The two parts of the name come from different local languages, but together mean something like “land of the honest men.”

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Democratic Republic of Congo
> Former name: Republic of Zaïre
> Year changed: 1997

The Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa is the continent’s second-largest country by land area after Algeria. In 1885, the Belgian king, Leopold II, established the so-called Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom. Belgium itself took it over officially in 1908 and from then until 1960, it was the Belgian Congo. After it gained independence, it was torn apart by civil war, until an army officer named Mobutu Sese Seko seized power and established a dictatorship in 1965. He rechristened the country Zaïre, after a name for the Congo River. Mobuto was deposed in 1967, and the new head of state, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, gave it its current name.

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