What’s in a Name?

Burma’s junta may have made the most recent big name change in Southeast Asia. But plenty of places have done it.

I wrote last year about the decision by Burma’s junta to change the official name of the country to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. This was the second time the junta had changed the name, having officially changed it from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. I also mentioned that they took the opportunity to create a new flag.

It has had me thinking about the symbolism and reasoning behind name changes, because Burma isn’t alone in Southeast Asia in making some dramatic adjustments.

For many years, Thailand was known as the Kingdom of Siam, before changing its name in the 1940s. Former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos thought about changing the name of the Philippines into the Maharlika Islands in the 1970s (until scholars reminded him that the etymology of the word Maharlika could also mean male genitals).

The official name of Laos, meanwhile, is Lao People's Democratic Republic or Muang Lao. Laos should be pronounced with a silent ‘s’. It was the French colonial government that added the letter ‘s’ to signify the unity of kingdoms inside the Lao territory. Meanwhile, the names Cambodge, Kâmpŭchea and Srok Khmer have been used in the past to refer to Cambodia. 

After the Vietnam War, Saigon City was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City, although it seems many people still prefer to use the name Saigon in the same way that Myanmar is still called Burma by the media and anti-junta groups.

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Singapore comes from the Sanskrit word Singapura, which means Lion City (although scientists believe that lions have never actually lived on the island).  

Phnom Penh's original name is Krong Chaktomuk, which is an abbreviation of its ceremonial name Krong Chaktomuk Mongkol Sakal Kampuchea Thipadei Sereythor Inthabot Borei Roth Reach Seima Maha Nokor. The rough translation reads something like: ‘The place of four rivers that gives the happiness and success of Kampuja Kingdom, the highest leader as well as impregnable city of the God Indra of the enormous Kingdom.’

Bangkok is known in Thailand as Krung Thep. Its full name is the second longest place name in the world. Bangkok’s full ceremonial name is Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit. A rough translation is: ‘The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma.’

Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to stick to Bangkok or Krung Thep.