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What's in a Name: The 411 on Country Names for International Students

Many countries have confusing names -- which can be perplexing to international students thinking of studying in them. Here’s a quick primer on six of the more complicated country names, along with how to get them right.

Sep 6, 2023
  • Student Tips
What's in a Name: The 411 on Country Names for International Students

South Africa’s Arts and Culture Minister Mathi Mthethwa recently made news by suggesting a name change to something more appropriate than merely a “geographical description of where we are.” If his proposal moves forward, it will follow a host of African countries which did the same after the end of colonial rule, including Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Botswana (check out the movie A United Kingdom for more on this). South Africa’s quandary highlights the fact that many countries have confusing names -- which can be perplexing to international students thinking of studying in them.

Here’s a quick primer on six of the more complicated country names, along with how to get them right.

A view of Dnieper river in Kiev

1. Ukraine or the Ukraine?

If you’re a native English speaker, “the Ukraine” may sound correct to you while “Ukraine” may sound “off.” But the latter is the correct way of saying the country’s name, according to experts. Oksana Kyzyma of the Embassy of Ukraine in London told BBC.com, "Ukraine is both the conventional short and long name of the country. This name is stated in the Ukrainian Declaration of Independence and Constitution."

So where did the misconception originate? Some suggest it dates back to pre-independence times when Ukraine was known as “the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic” while others say the confusion may lie in the meaning of the word itself: “Ukraine” translates to the word “borderland,” which may have led to the insertion of the article to make its name a reference to “the borderland.”

In Ukraine’s case, it’s about more than semantics. Etymology specialist Anatoly Liberman told BBC.com, "After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians probably decided that the article denigrated their country [by identifying it as a part of Russia] and abolished 'the' while speaking English, so now it is simply Ukraine. That's why the Ukraine suddenly lost its article in the last 20 years, it's a sort of linguistic independence in Europe, it's hugely symbolic."

So which countries correctly use the article? The Gambia and the Bahamas. Meanwhile, while Argentine, Congo, Yemen, Lebanon, Sudan, Philippines, and Bahamas are habitually referred to using the article, authoritative sources say this is not correct.

New Rhine river in Leiden downtown, Netherlands

2. The Netherlands or Holland?

Many people use the names “the Netherlands” and “Holland” interchangeably. However, Holland.com sets the matter straight: While 12 provinces comprise the country of the Netherlands (officially dubbed the “Kingdom of the Netherlands”), just two of these together -- Noord- and Zuid-Holland -- are Holland.

And while we’re on the subject -- why are inhabitants of the Netherlands called Dutch, anyway? Explains Dictionary.com, “In Old English dutch simply meant “people or nation.” (This also explains why Germany is called Deutschland in German.) Over time, English-speaking people used the word Dutch to describe people from both the Netherlands and Germany. (At that point in time, in the early 1500s, the Netherlands and parts of Germany, along with Belgium and Luxembourg, were all part of the Holy Roman Empire.) Specifically the phrase “High Dutch” referred to people from the mountainous area of what is now southern Germany. “Low Dutch” referred to people from the flatlands in what is now the Netherlands. Within the Holy Roman Empire, the word “Netherlands” was used to describe people from the low-lying (nether) region (land). The term was so widely used that when they became a formal, separate country in 1815, they became the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The word “Holland” literally meant “wood-land” in Old English and originally referred to people from the northern region of the Netherlands. Over time, it came to apply to the entire country.”

Prague, the Czech Republic

3. The Czech Republic or Czechia?

On Thursday, April 14, 2016, it was the Czech Republic. On Friday, April 15, 2016, it was Czechia -- at least according to a joint statement from the country’s senior officially asking the UN to update the official database of geographical names. Read the statement, “We recommend using the single-word name in foreign languages in situations when it’s not necessary to use the country’s formal name: sports events, marketing purposes etc.” Why the urgency? Leaders were tired of confusion over the names spelling and pronunciation, and were hoping to get the change in circulation prior to the impending Olympic games that summer. Meanwhile, other titles used for the country, including Czech, Czechlands, and Bohemia, remained unaddressed.

Non-history buffs may also find themselves asking the question: But what about Czechoslovakia? Explains The Guardian, “The Czech Republic is a successor state to former Czechoslovakia following a peaceful split with Slovakia in 1993.”

Northwest Fjord off Scoresbysund - Greenland

4. Why Isn’t Greenland Green?

Greenland isn’t exactly known for being green. In fact, it’s downright barren. So where did it get its verdant name? The majority of historians believe that the name was a trick devised by exiled Viking Erik the Red to entice others to join him on the icy island. Details The Ancient Standard, “Of course, when you tell someone that they will be traveling with you to a place that is barren, cold and inhospitable you may have trouble convincing even a Viking to come with you. So instead, Erik (according to popular legend) called the island Greenland and instead painted the island as being a wonderful place to settle.”

An alternate theory on Greenland’s naming suggests a translation error. Continues The Ancient Standard, “The word “grunt” actually means ground and it could be that Greenland was meant to be named Gruntland (or ground land).”

Caracas Cityscape at Twilight

5. Venezuela...Named after Venice, Naturally

The Republic of Venice was a leading European economic and trading power throughout the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. According to historians, the Native Americans’ houses -- built on stilts over the water -- reminded the early Spanish explorers of Venice’s similarly water-perched structures. Hence, navigator Amerigo Vespucci named the land Veneziela, AKA “little Venice,” which went on to become Venezuela.

Big Ben and Whitehall from Trafalgar Square, London

6. England, Britain, and the United Kingdom

When the UK voted to leave the European Union, the news shook the world...and also left many people scrambling to their computers to figure out what that meant, exactly. It can be tricky, indeed, but ThoughtCo. makes good sense of it with the explanation, “While many people use the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain (AKA Britain), and England interchangeably, there is a difference between them -- one is a country, the second is an island, and the third is a part of an island.”

More specifically, the UK -- officially named the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” -- is an independent country located off of the northwest coast of Europe. It comprises both Great Britain (the island) and the northern part of the island of Ireland. England is located on the island of Great Britain -- making it part of the UK, which also includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Concludes ThoughtCo, “Although common to hear or see London, England, though that is technically correct, it does imply that the independent country is named England, but that is not so.”

Which brings us back to Brexit and the question of who, exactly, is leaving the UK. The answer? All of them.

If you’re considering studying in a particular country, there are many things worth learning about before you go -- including everything from population and climate to language and culture. Perhaps the best place to start, however? With its correct name.

Joanna Hughes

Author

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.