A NY Times article this morning referenced the Congo. I was so glad when they changed the name of that country back from Zaire. "The Congo" was always much more evocative, conjuring up images of deepest, darkest Africa: bongo drums, okapis, elands, and wild-eyed primitives engaging in barbaric rituals. "Zaire" was a place I associated more with corrupt dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko. When Muhammad Ali termed his historic 1974 fight with George Foreman the "Rumble in the Jungle" he had the right idea. But even then, it would have resonated more if it had taken place in "the Congo" rather than "Zaire."
(Technically, it is the Democratic Republic of the Congo, not just the Congo. Of course, giving a country that prefix, just like calling it a "People's Republic," is a sure sign that it in fact is the opposite.)
Siam became Thailand back in 1949, before I was born. But I can still appreciate that Anna and the President of Thailand doesn't have quite the same ring. I imagine Siam as a place with chaste dancing girls who would dress up in colorful native garb and smile graciously as you took their picture. These days their Thai granddaughters frequent the streets of Bangkok and offer to give you AIDS for a very reasonable price.
I preferred Burma to Myanmar. You never hear of a Myanmarese python.
Ceylon was a lush, peaceful country with peaceful tea plantations and endless tropical beaches. Sri Lanka is the place where the Tamil Tigers and the Sinhalese majority do endless battle.
Persia became Iran back in 1935, before my time, so I don't feel nostalgic for the old name. But I still prefer it. Persia is where they made fine rugs -- magical flying carpets, as a matter of fact -- and where if you stumbled upon the right bottle a genie would come out and grant you three wishes. It's also where Omar Khayyam composed his poetry. Iran is where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad steals elections.
While we're at it, Iraq ought to rename itself Mesopotamia. Better the cradle of civilization than the home of Saddam.
I even preferred the Soviet Union (the name, not the form of government it had) to, say, Russia -- even though "Russia" is in fact older. The Soviet Union had a much more intimidating, powerful feel to it. Meeting them in the Olympics was much more of a challenge than meeting any of the individual countries. Russia still has Red Square and the Kremlin, and Vladimir Putin represents the best (i.e., the worst) of Soviet realpolitik. But it's still not the same. In the old days those Chechnyans would have been squashed like bugs.
Certain countries have districts whose names are more evocative than their own. If Romania were to rename itself Transylvania, it would sound less like the home of the Roma (the Gypsies), and more like the place which inspired Twilight.
Were the Czech Republic to rename itself Bohemia (which in fact encompasses over half of the Czech Republic), it would sound less blandly neutral and more free spirited and artistic.
The Khmer Republic did the right thing by becoming Kampuchea in 1975, and then Cambodia again in 1991. Better to be thought of as the land of Angkor Wat than the killing fields of Pol Pot.
Spanish Guinea wasn't nearly as evocative as Equatorial Guinea, which it became in 1968. The former sounds like just another dreary colony, the latter more like a steaming jungle where the latest President for Life might do colorful things like confiscate the entire national treasury, ban the use of the word "intellectual," destroy all boats, and bestow upon himself the title of "Unique Miracle" (all of which Francis Macias Nguema did back in 1971).
Another positive change was when East Pakistan became Bangladesh back in 1971. Bangladesh seems synonymous with famine, but better that than safe haven for Osama. (Yes, I know, Osama hid out in Pakistan, not East Pakistan, but they sound like the same country.)
If only more countries would follow Zaire's lead and switch to their older, more colorful names, we former stamp-collecting, boys' adventure-reading oldsters could be happy again.