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5 Big Cities That Changed Their Names

The Four Lads sang a song in 1953 about a city that changed its name.

Take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That's nobody's business but the Turks'

Constantinople isn't the only city to change its name. I grew up learning about Bombay, Canton, Leningrad, and Saigon (especially Saigon), but those names aren't used much anymore. Here are the stories of a few city names, new and old.

1. Bombay is now Mumbai

The big city in the state of Maharashtra, India was called Kakamuchee and Galajunkja in ancient times. In the Middle Ages, it was referred to as Manbai. There is still disagreement about how the name Bombay came about. On the one hand, Bombay is seen as an English corruption of Mumbai, which is a name derived from the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi. On the other hand, the name may have come from bom baim, a Portuguese phrase meaning "good little bay", although there are doubts due to the issue of the word genders. The city was ruled by Portugal from 1535 to 1661. Variation of the name included Mombayn, Bombay, Bombain, Bombaym, Monbaym, Mombaim, Mombaym, Bambaye, Bombaiim, Bombeye, and Boon Bay, all of which are documented spellings. When the British took possession of the city in 1661, they put a stop to all this nonsense and decided the name would be Bombay. India achieved independence from the British Empire in 1947. The idea of a new, purely Indian name gained favor over the years and became a political campaign in the 1980s and 90s. When the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won a majority of seats in the state assembly in 1995, the name Mumbai, which was commonly used in some local languages, was officially adopted. The name is a return to India's past and a homage to Mumbadevi, the goddess who is the patron saint of the city. Image by Flickr user d ha rm e sh.

2. Canton is now Guangzhou

The city of Guangzhou, China was founded under the name Panyu in 214 BC. Four hundred years later, it was named the capital of Guang prefecture and people began to call the city Guangzhou, which literally means Guang prefecture. Portugal established a trading monopoly in Guangdong province in the 1500s, and the name Cantão began to be used, which became Canton. No one is quite sure how the name Cantão or Canton actually came about, but it is believed to be a European phonetic mispronunciation of Guangzhou or Guangdong. The name Guangzhou was officially adopted by the city in 1918. So the city was never officially named Canton at all! Nevertheless, westerners used Canton on maps and travel schedules, and in geography and travel books until the late 20th century. Image by Flickr user Gijs Budel.

3. Saigon is now Hồ Chí Minh City

The original name of the Kmer village that eventually became Saigon was Prey Nokor. The earliest reference to the name Sài Gòn was in 1698, as the village was taken from Cambodia by the Vietnamese. It is thought that the term Sài Gòn was a Vietnamese translation of the Kmer words Prei Kor, which means Kapok Tree Forest or City of Kapok Trees. The area was actually a swamp, but its location made it a strategic seaport. The small fishing village grew into a modern city under the French, who took over in 1859 and called it Saigon. Saigon became the capital of Vietnam in 1949, and when the country split in 1954, Saigon remained the capital of South Vietnam. About that time, Saigon merged with Cholon on the other side of the Saigon River. No matter how it evolved, the name Saigon was a symbol of colonialism, so when the north defeated the south in 1975, the city lost its status as capital. The following year it was officially renamed for the deceased communist leader Hồ Chí Minh. Image by Flickr user Andrin Villa.

4. St. Petersburg is now St. Petersburg (again)

The original name of the small Russian town that became St. Petersburg is long gone, but it was only a tiny village before the Tsar arrived. Tsar Peter the Great, in his quest to make Russia more modern and therefore more European, named it St. Petersburg in 1703 and moved the government and the royal family to the city in 1710. He named the city in honor of St. Peter the evangelist, although most folks knew it was a roundabout way to name the city after himself. The "burg" was a nod to his relatives and allies in Germany. It became a large and modern city under Peter's rule. In 1914, World War I broke out and Germany was suddenly Russia's enemy. St. Petersburg became Petrograd, which still meant the City of Peter, rendered in the Russian language. After the communist revolution, even the name Petrograd didn't seem Russian enough. After Vladimir Lenin died in 1924, the city was renamed Leningrad in honor of the Soviet leader. In 1991, Russia held its first presidential election following the collapse of the Soviet government. On the same day, citizens of Leningrad voted in a referendum to change the name of Leningrad back to its historic moniker, St. Petersburg. Image by Flickr user Archie Dinzeo.

5. Constantinople is now Istanbul

The former capital of Turkey has been known by many names: Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Constantinople, Kostantiniyye. Ä°stanbul, Stamboul, and Islambol, among others. The city was founded in 667 BC and named Byzantium by the Greeks after Byzas, the king of Megara. The city was later absorbed into the Roman Empire, where it had several names. Emperor Constantine made it his eastern capital and it became Constantinople, the name that stuck in western ears for over a thousand years while the locals called the city by different names. Istanbul is a word that means "the city" and had been used colloquially for the last few hundred years to refer to the Turkish capital. Officials used the name off and on, but in 1930 the postal service decreed that all addresses in the city would be "Ä°stanbul". The i is dotted on the initial capital because the pronunciation is different from the dotless i in Turkish, although Istanbul is accepted in all other languages. Image by Flickr user maistora.

Bonus: Truth or Consequences

In 1950, the town of Hot Springs, New Mexico changed its name to Truth or Consequences after the radio quiz show of the same name. The change was in response to the show's host promising to broadcast from the first town that named itself after the program. Thus began a fifty-year tradition of broadcasting the show from the town once a year, first on radio and later on television. The name stayed, although residents call it "T or C" now. Read more stories of American towns that changed their names for one reason or another in the post 7 Towns That Changed Their Names (And 4 That Almost Did). Image by Flickr user Kristen Taylor.

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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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