Multi-Word Capital Cities

On April 24, 2011 · 21 Comments

I get strange queries. I noticed one recently from somebody who wanted to know the name of each national capital city composed of two or more words. I didn’t try to figure out the logic. I have no idea why they wanted to find this. If people ever learned to do things like Google "wikipedia list of capital cities" then my one-time readership would drop like a rock. However I’m frequently happy to indulge these anonymous requests because they provide good source material for the blog. Often I learn something new along the way.

I’ll start by defining some rules and parameters. Let’s include true national capitals and not the government seats of territories that fall within the control of parent nations. This removed my favorite town name, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas on the island of Tristan da Cunha, part of a British Overseas Territory. If you’re going to name your town after a place that already exists, go big I always say. The founders weren’t content with New Edinburgh or something lame like that. Edinburgh of the Seven Seas has a much more wonderful and imaginative ring to it.

Next, let’s realize that I’m looking at lists in English. Some cities may not be composed of multiple words when viewed in their native languages. This whole exercise is silly to begin with so I figured it didn’t much matter. Finally, we need to deal with punctuation. I considered a hyphen a separator between words but an apostrophe as joining the parts into a single word. Again, it’s arbitrary. Let’s not over-think it.

National capitals of two or more words began to fall into distinct patterns. I’m not sure if this would remain true if we considered the larger list of single-word national capitals. Maybe I’ll save that for a future article if the audience expresses interest.


Religious Etymology



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  • Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • La Paz, Bolivia
  • Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  • San José, Costa Rica
  • San Marino, San Marino
  • San Salvador, El Salvador
  • Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
  • São Tomé, São Tomé and Príncipe
  • St. George’s, Grenada
  • St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda

Lots of capitals derive their names from highly pious people. Christian saints were particularly popular, brought across oceans by colonial powers whether English (Saint, St.), Spanish (San, Santo) or Portuguese (São). As an aside, does anyone know when San versus Santo should be used in Spanish? I’ve wondered about that intermittently. What makes a holy person a San versus a Santo?

Argentina and Bolivia are perhaps less obvious. It becomes much more clear when one understands that the original name for Buenos Aires is Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre ("City of Our Lady Saint Mary of the Fair Winds") and the full name of La Paz is Nuestra Señora de La Paz ("Our Lady of Peace"). That realization delivers us back to that saintly theme again.

I think my favorite is Phnom Penh. The city name references a temple of the Lady Penh. By legend, she’s credited with building the original temple at this spot in the 14th Century.


Named for What Surrounds It



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I reserved this category for city planners with little imagination, a.k.a the Boring Category. "Hey, I’ve got an idea — let’s name the capital for the land that surrounds it." Yawn.

  • Andorra la Vella, Andorra
  • Guatemala City, Guatemala
  • Kuwait City, Kuwait
  • Mexico City, Mexico
  • Panama City, Panama
  • Vatican City, Vatican City

There are some little trivia nuggets even within this bland grouping. La Vella translates to "The Old" so at least they recognize an original Andorra and the rest of Andorra. Also, I’d always assumed that the Vatican referred to something early in the history of Christianity. In that instance it could be included on the religious etymology list. Actually it’s considerably older and may even date back to the Etruscan era. It refers to the name of the hill sitting under the city (which is not one of the seven hills of Rome by the way but that’s a different story).


Recognizing the Role of Commerce



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  • Port Louis, Mauritius
  • Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea
  • Port Vila, Vanuatu
  • Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago
  • Porto-Novo, Benin

Trade and commerce come to mind with this particular grouping. Once again we see the old hand of colonial powers at work, as they extracted commodities from various corners of the globe. Ports became important conduits, which became significant towns and eventually national capitals after the Europeans relinquish their empires. The most poignant of these locations has to be Porto-Novo, Benin. In Portuguese this translates to "New Port" and the cargo passing through this portal were humans shackled into generations of slavery.


… And the Rest



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The final group fell into a miscellaneous category. Their etymologies were often more interesting than the other groupings.

  • Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia started as a Nineteenth Century mining town and translates to "muddy confluence," where the Gombak and Klang Rivers joined.
  • Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates means "father of deer.” There’s some speculation around how this came about.
  • Addis Ababa, Ethiopia is the "new flower" in Ethiopia’s Amharic language. This makes sense when one learns that Addis Ababa dates only to 1886 in this otherwise ancient land.
  • Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei was named for the Sultan’s late father in 1970. Before that it was Bandar Brunei (i.e., Brunei Town) so it’s been rescued from the unimaginative category

Here’s a mystery for the 12MC crowd: What’s the derivation of Sri Jayawardenepura, Sri Lanka? That’s the only one I couldn’t find.

On April 24, 2011 · 21 Comments

21 Responses to “Multi-Word Capital Cities”

  1. Rick Nordstrom says:

    How about the first one which came to my mind: Ulan Bator, Mongolia? Has it been the victim of what I consider the scourge of renaming?

  2. Craig says:

    As far as I know, “Santo” is longer form of “San” and is used before male saint name that start with “To” or “Do”, where not repeating the syllable would lead to ambiguity. Thus, “Santo Domingo” keeps it from being misunderstood as “Santo Mingo”.

    According to the Dutch version of Wikipedia, Sri Jayawardenepura Kotte originally had the name “Sri Jaya Vardhana Pura Kotte” and meant “de gezegende versterkte stad van de groeiende overwinning”, i.e. “the blessed fortified city of the growing victory”, where “Kotte” is “fort”.

  3. Craig says:

    Feel free to add missing words to what I wrote above:
    “…is the longer form…”
    “…male saint names that…”

  4. Peter says:

    If I’m not mistaken, Mexico City is officially just “Mexico.”

  5. Guy says:

    According to the English Wikipedia the correct name is Sri Jayawardenapura Kotte. The Dutch Wikipedia article states that an earlier name for the city was Sri Jaya Vardhana Pura Kotte, in which the current name is easily recognizable. It translates to ‘the blessed fortified city of the growing victory’. The word Sri indicates an honorific title (it can be used as a title of veneration for deities), Jaya means ‘victory’, and Kotte means ‘fortress’. Hope that helps a bit…

    I didn’t see India’s capital New Delhi in your lists (I suppose it could be included in the ‘Named for What Surrounds It’ category). Strictly speaking, shouldn’t you also include Washington, D.C.? I remember reading somewhere that the state (or in this case the district) an American city is situated in forms an integral part of the city’s name. But I’m not sure if that is really the case.

    • Guy says:

      I see the links above do not work because I have left an unnecessary final slash. Sorry! These are the correct links: English WikipediaDutch WikipediaSriJayaKotte (see the history section).

    • New Delhi should be included — somehow I skipped past it as I typed.

      Washington, DC is a strange case. Washington was originally just one town in the District of Columbia. There was also a distinct Georgetown, DC for the longest time, as an example. Now the whole area is known as "Washington" as the city boundaries have grown to encompass the entire District. The foundation of the District comes from the United States Constitution, Article 1 Section 8 as one of the Powers of Congress: “To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States…” I think by popular usage most people would say the capital of the United States is Washington (one word) but more properly it may be “District of Columbia” (multiple words). What does the 12MC audience think?

      • Greg says:

        I’d go with “District of Columbia” for the US’s capital. I was under the impression that Washington as a political entity ceased to exist once it became coterminous with DC. For example, I think the capital city’s mayor is officially referred to as the Mayor of the District of Columbia. Also, what about Cape Town?

        • Joe says:

          Speaking only as someone who has never set foot in the Nation’s Capital (whatever we are calling it), I would say it counts as “Washington District of Columbia” only because that is what most people not familiar with the history of the capital know it as.

  6. President J.R. Jayawardene moved the capital from Colombo to the neighbouring city of Kotte in the early ’80s. Kotte then took on his name as its own, so Sri Jayawardenepura loosely translates to “land of the exhalted Jayawardene”. As far as I can gather, anyway.

  7. Thias says:

    An interesting thing would be to find cities (not capitals, just cities) names composed of three words or more… The difficulty would be not to count small words, thus Andorra la Vella wouldn’t be in that list.
    So I did that research, first to find out that Bangkok real name is, according to the “List of long place names” in Wikipedia:
    Krung Thep Mahanakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Piman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit

    And then I found out on that same list, that even if you’re considering small villages as ‘cities’, there’s not a lot of them whose names have 3 ‘real’ words or more.

    • I’m partial to El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels on the Porciúncula River), known today simply as Los Angeles, California.

  8. HH says:

    You must not have heard of sporcle (sporcle.com). Should keep you entertained until you run out of quizzes.

  9. buddy says:

    long time reader of this blog, keep up the good work!

    As for Sri Lanka’s capital, Sri(snaskrit) means revered, holy pura/puram (sanskrit) is town and Jayawardene is a persons name (maybe a president or something)

  10. Fritz Keppler says:

    And then there are capital names which are written as one word in English but as multiple words in the foreign language. Bangkok is an old name for what is now called Krung Thep Maha Nakhon (or Krung Thep for short) in Thai. Also a religious meaning, “City of Angels”.

  11. Fritz Keppler says:

    (Of course, there’s the really full ceremonial name Krung Thep Maha Nakhon Amon Rattanakosin Mahinthara Yuthaya Mahadilok Phop Noppharat Ratchathani Burirom Udomratchaniwet Mahasathan Amon Phiman Awatan Sathit Sakkathattiya Witsanukam Prasit,”The city of angels, the great city, the eternal jewel city, the impregnable city of God Indra, the grand capital of the world endowed with nine precious gems, the happy city, abounding in an enormous Royal Palace that resembles the heavenly abode where reigns the reincarnated god, a city given by Indra and built by Vishnukarma”. But not for daily use.)

  12. Mike says:

    Regarding Mexico City, this is a case of the country being named after the city, not the other way around. Before that, it was all just “New Spain.”

    As for Washington, D.C., the mayor is indeed the “Mayor of the District of Columbia.” And, while Washington now is the only city within the District, it is not the only entity. Most military bases within the district are addressed separately from Washington: e.g.: Fort McNair, DC; Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, DC; and Washington Navy Yard, DC.

    Of course, there’s also the geo-oddity that, though the Pentagon is in Arlington, Va., it is addressed as Washington, DC.

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