Until now, you might not have given much thought to the literal meaning of the names of countries, cities and towns, but many have fascinating historical explanations, cultural references or are steeped in myths and legends. Khartoum, for example, comes from the Arabic word al-kartoüm , meaning “the end of an elephant’s trunk”, and probably refers to the narrow strip of land in the Sudanese capital between the Blue and White Niles. Scholars suspect the name Toronto derives from the Mohawk word tkaronto , or “where there are trees standing in the water”, while accra (the name of the Ghanaian capital) means “ants” in the local Akan language – a reference to the area’s many anthills. Here’s an alphabet’s worth of names translated into English from their original language. Aotearoa is Maori for “land of the long white cloud”, while “New Zealand” was coined by explorer Abel Tasman, who named the territory after the Dutch province of Zeeland, meaning “sea land” or “land reclaimed from the sea”. In 1984, the West African country of Upper Volta was renamed Burkina Faso , or “land of the honest people”. There’s some disagreement about the origins of Chicago , America’s third most populous city. Many historians believe the name comes from the Native American word shikaakwa , a reference to the wild onions and garlic that grew in the area. French explorers pronounced it “Checagou”, which evolved into Chicago. Built in the 19th century near the village of Mzizima (Swahili for “healthy town”), the name of today’s Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam , means “house of peace” in Arabic. Coincidentally, Tanzania is currently ranked the most peaceful country in East Africa. Ethiopia derives from the Greek word aethiop , meaning “the land of burned faces”. The Roman city of Fluentia took its name from the flowing Arno River and evolved into Florentia (“flowering”), a reference to the lilies that bloomed in the area. This became Fiorentia, then Fiorenza and, finally, Firenze in modern Italian and Florence in English. The Sri Lankan city of Galle may have got its name from Portuguese sailors who heard a rooster ( galo ) crowing when they docked at the Indian Ocean port in the early 16th century. Alternatively, the name might derive from the Sinhala word gaalla , which translates as “the place where cattle herd together”. Heung gong , or “fragrant harbour”, is most a reference to Hong Kong ’s role as a production and trading centre for sweet smelling incense, much of which was shipped from (modern-day) Aberdeen harbour. The term was used by boatpeople but was adopted and applied to the entire colony by the British. The Rio de Janeiro suburb of Ipanema brings to mind, through the power of song, beautiful girls and stunning beaches. Odd, then, that the word means “stinking pond” in the indigenous Tupi language. The Indonesian island of Java probably gets its name from the Sanskrit yavadvipa , meaning “island of barley”. That’s barley the cereal grain, not Bali the island next door. The Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur is located at the point where two rivers meet and means “muddy confluence”. Staying with Malaysia, it’s thought Langkawi derives from the words for a reddish-brown eagle, helang (abbreviated to lang ), and kawi , the Sanskrit word for “marble”, both of which are plentiful on the holiday island. Malibu , California, was once home to Chumash tribes, who named the coastal settlement Humaliwo, which translates as “the surf sounds loudly”. Nairobi , the capital of Kenya, takes its name from the Maasai phrase enkare nairobi , which means “the place of cool waters”, a reference to the Nairobi River, which flows through the city. You will recall the African nation of Burkina Faso translates as “land of the honest people”. Well, the name of its capital city, Ouagadougou , means “you are welcome here at home with us” in the Mòoré dialect. Papua (New Guinea) translates as “frizzy-haired men” from the Malay word papuah . The New Guinea reference comes courtesy of Spanish explorer Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, who thought the inhabitants looked similar to people he had encountered on the west coast of Africa, where the Republic of Guinea is situated. The Amerindian word kébec means “where the river narrows” and gave Canada the name Québec . Portuguese explorers first set eyes on Guanabara Bay, Brazil, on January 1, 1502 and, mistakenly believing it to be the mouth of a large river, christened it Rio de Janeiro , or “January river”. According to legend, a prince from Palembang (modern-day Indonesia) encountered an animal he took for a lion while on a hunting trip and ordered that a great settlement known as Singapura, Sanskrit for “lion city”, be founded on the spot. In reality, there is no evidence that lions ever existed on the island of Singapore – apart from at the zoo, of course. Diplomacy and a willingness to adopt Western values and habits enabled King Chulalongkorn to pull off a minor miracle by ensuring most of Siam escaped colonial rule. In 1932, the country was renamed Thailand , meaning “land of the free”. In 1924, the capital of the new Mongolian People’s Republic was almost called Baatar Khot (“hero city”). Instead Ulan Bator , meaning “red hero”, was chosen, to commemorate the achievements of Communist revolutionary Damdin Sükhbaatar. In 1980, the New Hebrides, a South Pacific territory shared by the British and French, became the independent Pacific nation of Vanuatu , which means “our land forever” in local Melanesian languages. The Canadian city of Winnipeg was established at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, and the word means “muddy water” in the Cree dialect. Chang’an, the “city of long-lasting peace”, was described as a flourishing mercantile centre by 13th century adventurer Marco Polo. It was renamed Xian , “western peace”, in 1369, to further reinforce its status as a safe trade route. Burmese King Alaungpaya captured the village of Dagon in 1755 and, in an act of wishful thinking, renamed it Yangon , meaning “end of strife” – a reference to centuries of armed conflict, wars and conquests. Unfortunately, the city continues to suffer from tension and unrest. Perhaps the king should have called the former Myanmar capital Ouagadougou instead. In prison drama The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne dreams of escaping and living out his life in the Mexican resort of Zihuatanejo . The name derives from the Náhuatl word zihuatlan , or “place of women”, possibly because when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area, they discovered a matriarchal society.