5 Big Cities That Changed Their Names

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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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July 27, 2010 - 6:51am
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