You'll Never Believe These Countries' Actual Names

It's hard to imagine where we got some of our names for foreign countries

Shakespeare once wrote that "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet," which is fitting, considering that the language he wrote in is now the standard-bearer of world speech. Indeed, looking at the names of many countries around the world, it would seem almost irrelevant that these places had their own ways of describing themselves before Anglo-Saxon scribes came along.

While it might not come as a surprise that names of countries in the far (and near) east have been butchered for centuries, some of the entries on this list hit very close to home. It's unlikely that most people will ever use the proper names of places like China or Sweden, but this fact will simply make your cocktail party fodder all the more unique.

  • 01 of 05

    China

    China
    Robert Schrader

    China in one of the world's oldest civilizations, and it seems strange that a place so essential to the existence of our modern world would allows the rest of us to call it the wrong name, contemporary intolerance of divergent opinions notwithstanding.

    And yet China's Chinese name 中国 (zhong guo, pronounced "jong gwo") has only its numbers of syllables in common with the name most of us call it. Thankfully, we English speakers are far from the first to commit his faux-pas: Historically speaking, the word "China" has ancient Persian and Sanskrit origins.

  • 02 of 05

    Scotland

    Scotland
    Oxyman via Wikimedia Commons

    People tend to forget that at its core, Scotland is not an English-speaking country, even if you disregard insulting talk of accents. Indeed, Scotland's identity crisis began far before its integration into the United Kingdom, and is much more fundamental than kilts and haggis: Its name in Gaelic, the tongue of the ancient people who lived here, is "Alba."

    Interestingly, the modern name "Scotland" derives not from the English speakers who eventually came to dominate Scotland, but from a Latin phrase "scoti," which literally translates to "Land of the Gaels." So, if Scotland does decide to have another independence referendum, you can bet it will do so using its current name.

  • 03 of 05

    Egypt

    Pyramids
    Robert Schrader

    Like China, Egypt was home to an ancient civilization that changed the course of history. Unlike China, however, Egypt was re-conquered many times, to the extent that few if any remaining survivors of the ancient Egyptian race still call Egypt home today.

    Indeed, while Egypt's current official name Al-Misr is a product of the Arabic-speaking majority who now control the country, the word "Egypt" has ancient Greek and Middle French roots. Al-Misr also helps explain the two-letter code for Egyptair, the country's flag carrier, which is "MS."

  • 04 of 05

    Georgia

    Georgia
    Robert Schrader

    Compounding the tendency of English speakers to feel that their world view is the only one, the Republic of Georgia also confused egotistical Americans, who have difficulty envisioning a place called "Georgia" that isn't synonymous with peach trees, Coca Cola and the 1996 Olympic Games.

    Thankfully for them, the Georgian name Georgia – the country, this is – is "Sakartvelo," although the word "Georgia" is officially written into is constitution, deepening global confusion. Next time you find yourself asking "state or country?" when Georgia comes up in conversation, take comfort in the fact that you're probably not the only one!

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05

    Sweden

    Stockholm
    Robert Schrader

    If you ever watched the Muppets (and who didn't?), it's difficult not to associate the country of Sweden with the Swedish chef even if, looking back, there's nothing obviously Swedish about him if you take away his meatballs and his insistence that he's Swedish.

    Indeed, as charming as the way he says the word "Sweden" sounds, it isn't actually a word in the Swedish language (which is actually known as "svenska.") If you want to describe the country of Sweden while speaking Swed...I mean, Svenska, you will need to say "Sverige," which is pronounced "sve-ree-ga." (To say nothing of the Swedish meatballs the chef cooks, let alone Swedish fish or any of the other wonderful thing people from this part of the world produce.)