I recently took a trip that encompassed layovers in Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. And if you believe that, I’ve got a great deal for you on a bridge in Londinium. The truth is, none of the places I just mentioned exist — not by that name, anyway, or not as political entities.
Great Britain is the name of the island that constitutes most of what is properly known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually abbreviated to “the United Kingdom.” That nation consists of four other nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (as well as many but not all of the small islands in the vicinity). If you refer to England, you should mean England — no more, and no less. And though the citizens of England are the English, those of the United Kingdom are not; they’re British. (I’ll leave further details to the denizens of that fair country.)
Czechoslovakia, with gratitude from our twisted tongues and fumbling fingers, divided itself peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia nearly twenty years ago, soon after the collapse of its Communist government. (The residents generally speak related but different languages, the geography of the two countries is distinct, and their religious habits and other cultural characteristics differ significantly.)
Yugoslavia, an unfortunate agglomeration of Balkan nations that held together against all odds for much of the twentieth century, collapsed in acrimony at around the same time. The two remaining constituent states out of eight states and provinces briefly held on to the name but were soon known as the nation of Serbia and Montenegro; however, they separated in 2006.
The former Soviet Union gave way in the 1990s to fifteen separate nations, including Russia (also known as the Russian Federation), requiring journalists to sometimes make a distinction between the nation of Georgia and the American state by that name, and releasing a bewildering array of multisyllabic monikers, many of them ending in -stan (Persian for “home of” or “place of”).
Have you ever been to Bombay? It’s now formally known as Mumbai, a more accurate pronunciation of the native appellation. Rangoon, in Burma (oops — I mean, Myanmar), is for the same reason now identified as Yangon.
Farther north, Greenland is now Kalaallit Nunaat (the indigenous name), and Canada broke off a portion of the Northwest Territories to form Nunavut.
What future changes can we expect? Belgium, for many years an uneasy union of the French-identified culture of the region of Wallonia (French: Wallonie) and the Dutch-identified culture of the area long known as Flanders (Dutch: Vlaanderen), is likely to cleave into those two entities. Many other new names may appear on maps in the near future based on nomenclature arising from shifting geopolitics.
The ephemeral nature of geographical names makes the idea of printed atlases and such seem faintly ridiculous, because such publications are to some extent obsolete as soon as they’re produced. But don’t let that keep you from consulting with an authoritative resource before you refer in writing to a foreign locale. Your best bet, however, is an online source.
Equally important, when you mention a place in a historical context, do use the appropriate name — for example, “Great Britain” in a Revolutionary War novel, “Czechoslovakia” in an essay about the Prague Spring, or “Yugoslavia” in an article about that country’s charismatic dictator, Tito. In addition, phrases such as “in the former Soviet Union” or “part of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire” help keep countries in their place.