Last time we looked at the meanings behind the names of the top 10 US cities.  I thought it would be interesting to do the same for the top 10 cities globally.

(Note: There are many lists that rank the largest cities, but who’s on the list and who falls where depends on whether suburbs/greater metro areas are included in the population counts.  For our purposes, we’re counting just the city proper.)

Top 10 Cities Worldwide

  1. Shanghai, China: named in the 11th century, it’s a combination of the Chinese characters “above” and “sea”.  Extra credit if you can write both the characters.
  2. Istanbul, Turkey:  derived from Greek meaning “in the city” or “to the city”.  The name has been around since the 10th century, and became the city’s official name in 1930 so foreigners would stop calling it Constantinople.
  3. Karachi, Pakistan: the city’s name is a distortion of the last name of a fisherwoman, Mai Kolachi, who headed the village there a long, long time ago.  Date unknown.
  4. Mumbai, India: named in 1995 (formerly Bombay), it’s a combination of “Mumba”, the name of a goddess, and “Aai”, meaning “mother”.
  5. Beijing, China: exact date of naming unclear, but the site has been settled for 3,000 years.  Name means “northern capital”.
  6. Moscow, Russia:  named in 12th century after the Moskva River
  7. Sao Paulo, Brazil:  named in 1554 after Saint Paul
  8. Guangzhou, China:  exact date of naming unclear, but the site has been settled for 2,500 years.  Name means “vast state”
  9. Delhi, India:  exact date of naming unclear, but the site has been settled for 2,500 years.  Meaning of “Delhi” has many possibilities, including after a King Dhillu and the Hindi word “dhili” or “loose”
  10. Seoul, South Korea:  named in 1945 after the Korean word for “capital city” (although the site has been settled for 2,000 years)

Two things I find interesting about the cities’ names are:

  • Some of them are old.  Really old.  Not geologic time old.  But still old enough that the derivation of their names is unclear or has multiple possibilities
  • In the US, the date a city was settled at scale (i.e. excluding indigenous populations) matches the date that it received the name we know today (or it’s pretty close…e.g. New York was only New Amsterdam for 50 years before it changed).  However, for these cities globally, the sites may have been settled at scale for centuries before they were renamed as the places we know them today.

If you have any insights, please feel free to email me at matt [ at ] historicalness [ dot] com.