What's in a name? On January 25th, after months of negotiations, lawmakers in Greece voted to recognise its northern neighbour Macedonia as “North Macedonia”, thus ending a 28-year-old dispute with the tiny Balkan nation and paving the way for NATO and EU membership. The outcome was hailed as a historic achievement. But Macedonia is not the only country to have changed its name lately. In 2016, the Czech Republic adopted “Czechia” as the official short version of its name. And last year the African kingdom of Swaziland was renamed “eSwatini” by its all-powerful monarch.
Countries change their names for a variety of historical and cultural reasons. In Macedonia’s case, the goal was to settle rival claims over a name that dates back to the ancient kingdom of Alexander the Great. For eSwatini, the aim was to move beyond its colonial past and assert an African identity—it was one of the handful of African countries that chose to keep the name used by its European colonisers after gaining independence. Czechia’s objective was far more practical. The country hopes that the snappier name will be better suited for informal use, in the same way that “Slovakia” is used for Slovak Republic.
Alas, new country names can be slow to catch on. A look back at some of the most significant such changes of the 20th century using data from Google Ngram Viewer, a database of over 5m printed works, suggests it can take years for a new name to gain widespread usage. After the former British colony of Ceylon adopted the name Sri Lanka in 1972, it took nearly a decade for the new name to gain more literary mentions than its predecessor. The name Zimbabwe surpassed Rhodesia in about half that time. When Burma’s ruling military junta changed the country’s name to Myanmar in 1989, some foreign governments were reluctant to acknowledge the change, on the basis that doing so could be seen as granting the regime legitimacy. By 2008, the name Burma was still being mentioned in English-language books more than twice as often as Myanmar.
Whether North Macedonia will win over the public remains to be seen. The name has yet to be submitted to the United Nations’ database of geographical names, and Google Maps still labels the country “Macedonia (FYROM)”. Change takes time. But within a few years the dispute over the name of the kingdom once ruled by Alexander the Great may finally have passed into history.
This article is from our Graphic detail section.