The Fascination of Place Names

March 1, 2019


Photo by Artem Bali on Unsplash

We have all heard of Baghdad, Canterbury, Florence, Shanghai, and Tokyo, but do these names have any meaning? Washington in the USA was clearly named after a man called Washington, but what about New York? Might it have something to do with the city of York in England? Why do the Germans call their country Deutschland, while it is called Germany in English, Allemagne in French, Nemetchina in Russian and Saksa in Finnish? The Italians call the country Germania, but their word for German is tedesco. Why is the English version of St Petersburg spelt with an s when in Russian it is spelt St Peterburg without the s? Why did the city change its name from Leningrad back to St Petersburg in 1991 while the oblast’ (Region) in which it lay retained the name of Leningrad?

Names are labels, used to distinguish one place from another on the globe. There is probably no inhabited place on earth that does not have a name. Choosing one, however, may not be as simple as one might expect. There is room for great imagination to come into play (Truth or Consequences in the USA), but sometimes this opportunity is let slip (Naples from the Greek Neapolis meaning ‘New City’). Hundreds of names reappear around the world with San José or San Jose (Saint Joseph) being the most common.

There is also room for argument. While the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was in existence one of its republics was Macedonia, at one time known as South Serbia. The whole region known as Macedonia is, in fact, a part of the south-central Balkans encompassing areas in northern Greece, the south-western corner of Bulgaria, and the former Yugoslav Macedonia. When this latter republic declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 it called itself the Republic of Macedonia. Greece objected, adamant that Macedonia should not appear in the title. The Greeks continued to refer to its inhabitants as Slavophone Greeks, claiming Macedonia to be an exclusively Greek regional name. The question therefore arose as to what the rest of the world should call the new independent republic. Macedonia gained membership of the UN in 1993 after agreeing to a compromise with Greece that it should be referred to as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia or FYROM for short. Much discussion, sometimes heated, took place during the next 26 years. Only in 2019 was agreement finally reached: the internationally-recognized name was to be the Republic of North Macedonia 

Not a year goes by without place names being changed around the world. A person born in St Petersburg in Russia just before the start of the First World War (1 August 1914) quickly found themselves living in Petrograd (from 1 September 1914), a few years later in Leningrad (26 January 1924), and then, without ever moving, they died in St Petersburg (from 6 September 1991) after the dissolution of the Soviet Union that year. In 2016, provoked by the Russian annexation of Crimea and Russian-backed armed separatism in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities embarked on a decommunization programme. This included changing the names of some 1,000 cities, towns and villages associated with communism in one way or another. Since many of these are in the eastern regions of the country and Crimea, there is virtually no likelihood of the changes being adopted locally. Changes may just be a result of transferring to a different system of Romanization; when Pinyin was adopted as the official Romanization system Peking became known as Beijing. Both South Korea and Taiwan have quite recently altered their Romanization systems.

Over 30 new countries have been established during the last 30 years. Over half came into existence as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Some countries split: Czechoslovakia to form the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Ethiopia from which Eritrea was hived off, Serbia which lost an autonomous province which became the independent Kosovo, and Sudan, a part of which became the independent South Sudan. Others amalgamated: East and West Germany to form Germany, and North and South Yemen to become Yemen.

The origin of many country names is generally fairly obvious. Some are simply named after their early inhabitants: for example, Croatia after the Croats, England after the Angles, France after the Franks, Swaziland after the Swazis. Some honour individuals: Bolivia after Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), Colombia after Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), Mauritius after Maurice (1567–1625) of Nassau, the Philippines after King Philip II (1527–98) of Spain, and the United States of America after Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512), an Italian explorer. Some country names give a clue to their topography. Chad is named after Lake Chad, Iceland from ís ‘ice’ because the Norse settlers of the 9th century wished to deter any visitors from coming to an island which in fact enjoyed comparatively moderate temperatures (because of the Gulf Stream), and Montenegro, whose endonym is Crna Gora, means ‘Black Mountain’.

Possibly the three most important elements of toponymy are languages—living and dead—history, and geography. Together they can quite often provide enough information for the meaning of a name to be deduced. However, there are traps for the unwary. It is too easy sometimes to be taken in by what appears to be obvious (Cambridge or Swansea) but is false, or to rely on folk etymology. Myths and legends may be entertaining, but rarely of value.


John Everett-Heath is a former military pilot and diplomat; he then became a civil servant involved in arms control in the countries that were once part of the former Soviet Union. This if the fourth edition of The Concise Dictionary of World Place Names.