I’ve always had a strange fascination with the history and etymology of city names. Where did the name come from? How often has it changed? So after listening to “Istanbul” by They Might Be Giants about 500 times with my 7-year-old who likes the song, I started getting curious. The song goes like this:
Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way
So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can’t go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works?
That’s nobody’s business but the Turks
But I couldn’t accept that “people just liked it better that way,” so I did a little research and compiled this list of my favorite city name changes in history.
- 657 BCE – BYZANTIUM: Colony founded by Ancient Greece.
- 330 – CONSTANTINOPLE: Also known as Constantinopolis. This is the new capital of the Roman Empire, named by the Romans in honor of Constantine the Great.
- 1930 – ISTANBUL: Despite being locally known as Istanbul (or sometimes Islambol) since the Islamic Ottoman Empire, it wasn’t until Turkey officially adopted the Latin alphabet that the world started to call the city by its Turkish name rather than its old Roman name. Istanbul is possibly derived from the city’s original Greek nickname “is tim bolin” (to the city), or a shortened version of Constantinople, or a variation from Islambol (meaning Full of Islam).
NEW YORK CITY, USA
- 1524 – NOUVELLE ANGOULEME – The first European explorers, working for the French crown, named this area Nouvelle Angouleme (or New Angouleme) after the French King Francis I, who was the count of the town Angouleme, France before becoming king.
- 1653 – NEW AMSTERDAM: Colonized by Dutch settlers.
- 1664 – NEW YORK: Conquered by English settlers and renamed after the Duke of York.
- 1673 – NEW ORANGE: The city was very briefly reconquered by the Dutch and renamed after William III, Prince of Orange (a region of the modern-day France).
- 1674 – NEW YORK CITY: The English got their New York City back.
CITY OF LOS ANGELES, USA
- 1781 – EL PUEBLO DE NUESTRA SENORA LA REINA DE LOS ANGELES DE PORCIUNCULA: Founded by Spanish settlers, this translates to “The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciúncula,” with “Queen of the Angels” referring to the Virgin Mary and “Porciuncula” coming from Latin meaning “small portion of land.” It was probably shortened colloquially to Los Angeles soon thereafter, not surprisingly.
- 1850 – CITY OF LOS ANGELES: The city was officially named City of Los Angeles when the US took control of California.
- Forever ago: The first evidence of humans in the Beijing area date back to 250,000 years ago, though Ji is the first walled city in the 11th century BCE. The city took on different names throughout China’s many dynasties, such as Yanjing, Guangyang, Fanyang, Youzhou, Zhongdu…
- 1264 – DADU/KHANBALIK: Genghis Khan destroyed the city of Zhongdu in 1215. In 1264, his grandson Kublai Khan ordered the use of this site to build a new Mongolian capital. This city becomes known as Khanbalik in Mongolian (meaning “City of Khan”) or Dadu in Chinese (meaning “Grand Capital”).
- 1368 – PEIPING/BEIPING: The city became known as Peiping (or Beiping, depending on pronunciation, which will become a recurring theme), meaning “Northern Peace.”
- 1403 – PEKING (kind of): In Chinese, the symbols for Beijing means “Northern Capital.” Because China’s a big place with many dialects, these symbols would have been pronounced Beijing in the North, but Peking in the South. Beijing being in the North of China, it would have made sense for foreigners to use the romanization of the Northern dialects, but since most outsiders tended to visit only China’s Southern harbor, the world came to know Beijing as it is pronounced by Southern Chinese dialects. Hence, Peking stuck around.
- 1928 – PEIPING/BEIPING (again, pronunciation…): Nanjing (“Southern Capital”) became the capital of China, so Beijing got demoted to Peiping.
- 1949 – PEKING: Beijing became the Chinese capital again, so Peking is back!
- 1958 – BEIJING: China officially adopted the pinyin romanization, which favors Beijing’s northern pronunciation, and the world met the “new” city name, Beijing. (If you’re too young to have ever heard Beijing referred to as Peking, know you know why the traditional Beijing dish is called “Peking duck.”)
In some cases, it’s impressive to see how some city names have not changed at all…
- 52 BCE – LUTETIA: This small tribal village was conquered by the Romans and named Lutetia, a word with possible Celtic roots… it could come from “mouse” or “swamp,” but no one knows for sure. Though I have to say, neither options sound inviting.
- ~500 CE – PARISIUS/PARIS: After the decline of the Roman empire, the city is renamed to Parisius in Latin and Paris in French, after the Celtic Parisii tribe which inhabited the town from the 3rd century BCE until the Romans took over.
- 43 CE: Roman settlement was named Londonium. London has, since then, taken a variety of slight modifications to its spelling, but has pretty much always been some form of London. Its etymology, however, is as complicated as its name history is not.
Do you have any favorite city name stories? Please do leave a note in the comments. I’d love to find out!