How Some of the Most Well-Known Cities Got Their Names

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What’s in a name? For Romeo and Juliet, it might not mean much, but for many major cities around the world, a name represents local history and culture. Here’s how some of the most well-known cities in the world got their names.

Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo skyline with Mt. Fuji in the background
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Tokyo hasn’t always been the capital of Japan. For over a thousand years, the western city of Kyoto was where the kings and emperors ruled over the land. The rather uncreative name “Kyoto” translates to “imperial capital.” When the capital was moved from Kyoto in 1868, it traveled east. Keeping with tradition, the Japanese named the new capital city “Tokyo,” which translates to “eastern imperial capital.”

New York City, United States

Aerial view of iconic New York City skyline showing Statue of Liberty and skyscrapers
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The Dutch first arrived on the shores of New York in 1624, but that’s not what they originally called it. They originally named the island New Amsterdam after Holland’s largest city. However, the Dutch didn’t keep control of the island for too long. In 1664, the British arrived and took over. They decided to rename the island New York to honor the British Duke of York.

Bangkok, Thailand

Aerial view of scenic palace, river barges and architecture in Bangkok, Thailand
Credit: anek.soowannaphoom/ Shutterstock

The name “Bangkok” is a descriptive term that describes the land. In Thai, “bahng” means “a place” and “gawk” means “olives.” Literally, Bangkok translates to “a place of olives” to represent the numerous olive groves that used to grow there.

What many westerners might not know is that Bangkok isn’t the official name for the city. Bangkok’s real name is the longest city name in the world. Its official name is:

Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Ayuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

In English, it translates to:

The city of angels, the great city, the residence of the Emerald Buddha, the impregnable city (unlike Ayutthaya) 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 Vishnukarn.

Most city names tell a story. The people of Thailand took that literally.

Sydney, Australia

Waterfront of Harbour around Circular quay and Opera House in Sydney, Australia
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In 1788, a group of British marines and convicts landed off the coast of Australia in Botany Bay. They were running dangerously low on supplies and were in desperate need of fresh water. However, there was none. Captain Arthur Phillip set out to find a creek or stream that could resupply his crew. He finally stumbled upon a small creek that ran into a cove. He moved the fleet to the new spot and built a small settlement. He named the settlement after the British Secretary of State for the Home Office, Lord Sydney.

Rome, Italy

Aerial view of Rome skyline showing traditional architecture and trees, Italy
Credit: Catarina Belova/ Shutterstock

Ancient Romans had a legend about how their city was founded. Its historical accuracy is questionable, but at least it’s a good story. Brothers Romulus and Remus were twin sons of the god Mars. When they were born, they were left to drown in the river by their evil uncle. Luckily, they were rescued by a wolf and raised as her own. They grew up, took revenge on their uncle, and decided to build a new city.

The brothers couldn’t agree on which hill to build their city. They asked the gods for guidance, but that didn’t help with the decision. Tensions grew between the siblings until one day after an argument, Romulus killed Remus and decided to establish the new city alone. He named it “Roma” after himself.

Paris, France

Aerial view of scenic Parisian skyline at sunset, showing buildings and Eiffel Tower
Credit: Luciano Mortula - LGM/ Shutterstock

In 259 B.C.E., a Celtic tribe called the Parisii settled on the banks of the Seine. Although the Romans eventually conquered the small village and founded their own city called Lutetia, the city was renamed Paris in honor of the original settlers by the 4th century. The name has stuck for over 2,000 years and counting.

Moscow, Russia

Moscow, Russia with street traffic in springtime
Credit: CarpenterPhoto/ Shutterstock

The name “Moscow” has been around much longer than the city itself. Originally, the land was inhabited by Finno-Ugric tribes. They named the river that flows through the land “Moskva,” which is believed to mean “dark waters,” “marshy place,” or “mossy plain.” Time passed and tribes changed, but the name stayed the same. The river that flows through Moscow is still called the Moskva River and in Russian, the city is still called Moskva. Moscow is the English pronunciation of the ancient name.

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