|US government map of the Gambia (source)|
If you read our review of world political geography changes in 2015, you might remember a brief note on the official name of the Gambia, a tiny country located along the banks of a river in West Africa. Last December, the Gambia's maverick dictator decided to declare the country an "Islamic republic", a designation that can have various meanings and is used by four other countries in the world.
At the time, at least one regional news source claimed that the country's official name had indeed been changed from "Republic of The Gambia" to "Islamic Republic of The Gambia". But for a country's name to be formally changed, its government normally has to pass a law or at least issue some kind of proclamation, and at the time it wasn't clear whether that had actually happened.
| Country Name: |
• The Gambia
• Islamic Republic of the Gambia
Since most of the world's countries, including the Gambia, are part of the United Nations (UN), it's expected that if the country's name changes, the change will be filed with the administrative offices of the UN so world organizations and other countries will know to start using the new one.
And earlier this year, that finally happened, with the UN updating its terminology database to show that the Gambia's official long-form English name had been changed to "the Islamic Republic of the Gambia".
This confirmed the name change, and soon led to the same modification being made to ISO 3166, the international standard list of countries and country codes that's used by organizations and companies all around the world.
How Often Do Countries Change Their Names?
Out of the world's nearly 200 countries, there's an average of about one official country name change each year, most of them involving changes to the country's full name or preferred English name. Besides the Gambia, no countries changed their names in 2014 or 2015, with the last country to do so being Cape Verde in late 2013. That African island country changed its preferred English name at the UN to Cabo Verde, the same as its native Portuguese-language name; the same year, war-torn Libya clarified its new long-form name as "State of Libya". The year before, Somalia's 2012 constitution changed the country's full name to the Federal Republic of Somalia, and a new Hungarian constitution traded "Republic of Hungary" for just "Hungary".
More substantial changes to countries' names, involving more than just translation decisions or adjustments to full names, are much less common. The best recent examples are Yugoslavia's name change to "Serbia and Montenegro" in 2003, Western Samoa's change to just "Samoa" in 1997, and Zaire's reversion to its previous name of "Democratic Republic of the Congo", also in 1997.
Name Changed in Other Languages
Unlike some countries that have only changed their name for foreign language speakers, English is actually the official language of the Gambia. The UN, on the other hand, has six official languages, so the country's new name also had to be translated and made official in each of those languages:
|English||the Republic of the Gambia||the Islamic Republic of the Gambia|
|French||la République de Gambie||la République islamique de Gambie|
|Spanish||la República de Gambia||la República Islámica de Gambia|
|Russian||Республика Гамбия||Исламская Республика Гамбия|
|Arabic||جمهورية غامبيا||جمهورية غامبيا الإسلامية|
Islam in the Gambia
Although the country's name change might seem to suggest that the Islamic religion will be playing a larger role in the government, this doesn't seem to be the case. Ninety percent of Gambians are Muslims, and there is not complete separation between church and state. But the Gambian constitution does protect freedom of religion, and there's little sign anything is changing in that area.
Graphic of the flag of the Gambia is in the public domain (source).