When Did Peking Become Beijing and Persia Become Iran? We Have the Data

Where politics and language collide: how place names change over time.

What’s in a name? Place names often change, and those changes stem from a tangle of politics and language. A fun tool from Google, the Ngram Viewer, lets us watch those changes play out across history. The Ngram Viewer charts how often a particular word appears in some five million books digitized as part of the Google Books project. It lets us see the popularity of terms across a long period, from 1800 to 2008.

So, for example, we can see that the government of Myanmar has been very unsuccessful in getting English speakers to stop calling it Burma:

The country has been trying to get others to call it that since 1989. Its neighbor Thailand shows how hard it can be to change names—especially when you switch back and forth. Thailand was Siam until 1939—and then was Siam again from 1945 to 1949. But it wasn’t until 1953 that “Thailand” passed “Siam” in English writing:

Other countries have had more successful switchovers. Upper Volta became Burkina Faso in 1984, when its president decided to drop the country’s colonial name and build a name with words from its two most common languages in a gesture of national harmony. “Burkina Faso” zoomed ahead of “Upper Volta” by 1987:

Similarly, “Ghana” quickly took over from “Gold Coast” when the latter became the former in 1957:

and “Zimbabwe” passed “Rhodesia” in 1984, four years after its independence. Zimbabwe has had many names—it was “Southern Rhodesia,” a British colony, until 1965 (briefly becoming part of the broader the Central African Federation, another colonial entity), when it became the unrecognized state of Rhodesia, ruled by the white minority; the civil war that resulted from the tensions between colonial rule, minority rule and African nationalism would lead to the country eventually becoming Zimbabwe in 1980, after a brief stint as “Zimbabwe Rhodesia” (for seven months in 1979) and as the colonial “Southern Rhodesia” again (for four months in 1979 and 1980, as the British took over to ease the transition to independence). These latter two names never really took off: