UC MagazineUniversity of CincinnatiUC Magazine

UC Magazine

Foreign Cities: Why do we change their names?

by Deb Rieselman

English-speaking people often change foreign words into more easily pronounced syllables, but why do we change proper names that we could have clearly pronounced to begin with? Koln into Cologne, for example? Maroc into Morocco, or Firenze into Florence?

"There isn't any one answer," says English professor Edgar Slotkin. In the case of Firenze, Italy, for instance, the city's name comes from a root word meaning "flowering," fior in Italian, he says. When using the Latin word for flowering (flor), the city's name became Florentia. The French interpretation of the Latin was Florence, which the English adopted — and which turns out to be much closer to Firenze than it seemed.

"In the case of Moscow," he adds, "Moscau was an early form of the place, which was Anglicized as Moscow and Slavocized as Moskva.

"And don't even start on Chinese place names," Slotkin adds. "There just isn't a unified answer."