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Geographic Name Changes

Next week, I’ll enjoy one of my favorite dishes while visiting Beijing. I know we'll have Peking Duck when we celebrate my spouse’s milestone birthday on our trip to China. Using both Peking and Beijing reminds me of my interest in cities and countries whose names have changed.

Have you ever wondered why and how that happens? This interesting article explains some of these changes, and a quick online search of any number of cities and countries will yield a history and geography lesson.

Beijing - Peking

If you speak Mandarin, nothing about the name of China’s capital changed for you. The spelling and pronunciation in this language stayed the same. After establishing the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the government adopted the pinyin transliteration method using the Latin (also known as the Roman) alphabet, which we use asEnglish speakers. This altered how some proper names, including places, are now written.  Although the official change to Beijing occurred more than half a century ago, it wasn’t until the 1980s that China began enforcing its official name on flights, sea routes, and official documents. Beijing's International Airport Code remains PEK.

Kinshasa - Leopoldville

Kinshasa, the capital and largest city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) was founded in 1881, and named Leopoldville in honor of King Leopold II of Belgium. King Leopold claimed the Congo Free State as his personal property and extracted a fortune by taking ivory and rubber. His use of forced labor, torture, and murder to meet his quotas was viewed as a crime against humanity as early as 1890. As African countries liberated themselves from the shackles of colonialism, many chose to Africanize the names of their cities and countries. Good riddance to brutal King Leopold’s name.

Kinshasa gained global attention in 1974 for hosting the iconic Rumble in the Jungle

boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman.

Zimbabwe and Zambia - Rhodesia

Zimbabwe and Zambia were once part of Rhodesia, and the new names were adopted after gaining independence. These changes symbolized the shifting towards a new national identity and distancing from the British colonial past. The name Zimbabwe originates from Shona, which refers to great stone houses, highlighting historical significance and trade connections with neighboring African kingdoms. Zambia gets its name from the Great Zambezi River.

St. Petersburg – Leningrad – Petrograd

Throughout history, cities in Russia and neighboring countries have been renamed and rebranded after political conflicts and changes in leadership. Most famously, St. Peterburg, also known as Petrograd (1914-1924) and then Leningrad (1924-1991), was renamed St. Petersburg in 1991.

Peter the Great, the Czar and later the first Emperor of Russia in the late 1600s and early 1700s, named the city he founded after St. Peter. It was once the capital of Russia and one of its grand cities, best known as a center for learning, science, and the arts. It has grand architecture and is home to the first Russian ballet school and Conservatory of Music. St. Petersburg's ostentatious splendor and wealth were legendary. During World War I, it adopted the Russian version of its name, Petrograd, to distance itself from Europe and Germany. After Russia's civil war ended and following the death of Vladamir Lenin, it was named Leningrad. When the communist regime in the USSR fell, it reverted to St. Petersburg.

Who knows whether President Vladimir Putin will change the name of St. Petersburg. Putingrad?

Kolkata – Calcutta

Calcutta changed its name to Kolkata in 2001, adopting its original Bengali pronunciation. The move was part of a broader trend in India to shed colonial names and embrace indigenous ones. While some cities faced resistance to name changes, Kolkata transitioned smoothly, maintaining its dual identity for many residents.

Kyiv – Kiev

The capital of Ukraine is Kyiv, and that spelling is a transliteration of the Ukrainian Київ. The Russian version of this name is Kiev from the Russian Cyrillic Киев. Most of us are familiar with the Russian spelling because of Chicken Kiev, a dish that was quite popular in upscale restaurants in the 1970s. As noted previously, some languages have alphabets and or spelling systems that differ from the one we use (Latin/Roman alphabet). Thus, names must be transliterated to approximate the sounds in other languages. Given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the efforts to terminate its independence, Ukrainians very much want the world to use the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation of their besieged capital city. Here’s an article with a short video that explains this more fully.

Names matter whether it’s what we call ourselves or what we call our cities and nations.

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1 Comment

Manny Herrera
Manny Herrera
May 05

In all of my geography and cartography classes as a major in such, l don't believe the topic of Geographic Name Changes was ever discussed. And there are numerous once you give it some thought. How very interesting!

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