Towns and cities change names for a number of reasons. The revamp might be to reflect new rulers and a shift in the prevailing political ideology. Or it could be to move on from a colonial past or to celebrate the achievements of a public figure. In some cases, the switch is to erase an embarrassing name – Sexmoan (the Philippines) and Gay Head (the United States), for example – or to purge a moniker that has negative connotations. The town council in Asbestos, in Quebec, Canada, recently presented residents with a choice of four less carcinogenic-sounding alternatives for them to rank in order of preference. There are even instances of places agreeing to a rebrand in exchange for financial gain … In a 2005 deal with a satellite television company, Clark, Texas, became Dish , Texas. As part of a guerilla marketing campaign, all 55 homeowners were granted a free 10-year subscription while the EchoStar Corporation benefited from a spike in brand awareness that traditional forms of advertising couldn’t compete with. On being asked by a New York Times reporter whether he preferred Clark or Dish, a resident replied, “I wished Jack Daniel’s would have looked us up.” Founded by Tsar Peter the Great, St Petersburg has endured more name changes than your average KGB spy. The city was known as Petrograd when, in October 1917, it found itself at the epicentre of the Bolshevik revolution that led to the fall of the Russian monarchy and the rise of the Soviet Union. It became Leningrad in 1924 before returning to its original name in 1991. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hometown has also been called Petersburg, Sankt-Peterburg and Piter by locals – and the Venice of the North by tourism PR agencies. Not many places change their name after being made fun of by a comedian but, in 2012, business owners in Staines convinced borough councillors to rename the middle-class English town Staines-upon-Thames . The switch came about after the London commuter suburb was parodied by spoof rapper Ali G. Opinions were divided: the chairman of the business forum claimed Sacha Baron Cohen’s alter ego “put the stain in Staines” while the local football club called the decision “pretentious”. Meanwhile, there’s no truth in rumours the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan considered a name change after being mercilessly mocked by another Cohen character, Borat. India has been phasing out colonial names since independence in 1947. Bombay, which may have been an anglicisation of the Portuguese Bom Bahia , meaning “good bay”, reverted to Mumbai in 1995, a name used by 16th century fishermen to honour the goddess Mumbadevi. Had the central government taken a different path, we could be calling India’s largest city by its earliest recorded names, Kakamuchee or Galajunkja. Other high-profile Indian alterations include Chennai (formerly Madras), Bengaluru (Bangalore) and Trivandrum, which was cruelly changed to Thiruvananthapuram in 1991 and has left foreign tourists tongue-tied ever since. The Portuguese established a trading base in southern China and would probably have been happy to refer to the riverside settlement by its original name. But by the 16th century, Panyu, which dates back to 214BC, had become Guangzhou , or Guang prefecture. More competent at peddling and purchasing than pronunciation, the Iberian merchants began using the name Cantão, which evolved into the even less linguistically challenging Canton. (Perhaps ease of diction also explains why the capital of Portuguese India was Cochin, and later Goa, but never Thiruvananthapuram.) Guangzhou has been the official city name since 1918 and while “Canton” wasn’t formally adopted, the word “Cantonese” lives on. The small Khmer fishing village of Prey Nokor (“forest city”) or Preah Reach Nokor (“royal city”) became Gia Dinh when it was seized by the Vietnamese. Under French rule, the burgeoning port town was known as Saigon, a name derived from the Chinese for “firewood from the kapok tree”. The city became the national capital in 1949 and retained the role in South Vietnam after the country was divided in 1954. To celebrate the end of the Vietnam war and reunification it was renamed Ho Chi Minh City to honour the communist government’s first leader. Some residents continue to use Saigon, however, and the three-letter IATA aviation code used on baggage tags is still SGN. In 1626, lower Manhattan, seat of the Dutch New Netherland government, was purchased for 60 guilders worth of trade goods. The figure amounts to barely more than US$1,000 in today’s money, although historians speculate that, as Native American notions of land ownership differed from those of Europeans, it’s possible the Lenape Indians believed they were receiving gifts rather than selling territory. The fur trading settlement was named New Amsterdam but, following capture by the English, it was rechristened New York in 1664 to honour James, the Duke of York. The colony would briefly revert to Dutch ownership in 1673 and, for about a year, the city we know today as the Big Apple was called New Orange. The northern English city of York , after which the aforementioned dukedom was created in 1385, has undergone a succession of name changes throughout its history. Known by Celts as Eburacon (“place where the yew trees grow”), its name evolved into Eboracum (“place of the boar”) and it went on to become the most important city in Roman Britannia. An Anglo-Saxon tweak resulted in Evorwic, although this was too much of a mouthful for invading Vikings, who opted instead for Jorvik, from which “York” is derived. An area of central Australia known as Mparntwe by its indigenous inhabitants was given the name Stuart after Scottish explorer John McDouall Stuart, who led an expedition through the region in 1861. Little more than a desert waterhole, it was selected as the site of an overland telegraph repeater station that began operations 11 years later – a project overseen by the superintendent of post and telegraph Sir Charles Todd. To commemorate the achievement, the town was posthumously renamed Alice Springs after his wife, Alice Gillam Todd, in 1933. Stuart’s role in opening up the Outback isn’t forgotten either. The 2,834km Stuart Highway (aka The Track) runs from Darwin, in the Northern Territory, to Port Augusta in South Australia. The road also connects Alice Springs with Uluru, which was formerly called, at least by white settlers, Ayers Rock.