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Cape Verde asks world to call it Cabo Verde

Wants its identity accepted

It’s Cabo Verde across the West African archipelago where Portuguese and Creole are the languages. It's known as Cape Verde in the English-speaking world. It’s Kap Verde in Finland, Sweden, and Germany. And in Italy, it’s Capo Verde.

Each time Cape Verde sends out a diplomatic cable or creates a tourism brochure, the name of the island nation, which won independence from Portugal in 1975, is translated into the native tongue of the country being contacted.

“We have to translate the name all the time. That’s very difficult,” Mario Lucio de Sousa, the minister of culture for Cape Verde, said during a recent mission to New England, home to about 500,000 people of Cape Verdean ancestry, a community almost as large as the country’s population.


At least they used to have to translate it all the time.

Late last year, the nation that had been known in the United Nations as Cape Verde made a rare request to change the official name of the country to Cabo Verde “in all official languages of the United Nations . . . and request that it should not be translated.”

The only deviation would be with the long-form version of the name, Republica de Cabo Verde, which will be Republic of Cabo Verde in English, République de Cabo Verde in French, and so on. “The translation to other official languages of the United Nations shall follow the same pattern,” said the October 2013 missive. (There are six official languages used at the UN.)

The United States received the same request in a November diplomatic note and approved the change in December, officially scrubbing Cape Verde from government databases and websites. Entries for Cabo Verde can now be found in the CIA’s online World Factbook and the State Department’s website.

But this is about so much more than cumbersome translations, as countries are often called one thing at home and another abroad. Take the Netherlands, known in-country as Nederland, or Germany, which is Deutschland at home. This global appeal is about a country’s ability to name itself.


Political leaders and academics say a country’s name signifies culture, identity, and history. It is a brand that influences everything from economic development to international investment opportunities and tourism. Cabo Verde is on maps. It’s emblazoned on the sides of airplanes. It’s on the cover of trade magazines.

And geographers say that in an increasingly globalized and technical world, it is crucial there be a standard version of a country’s name for engineering, transportation, and telecommunication systems.

“When you say United States, people think: powerful, of the economy, the country of invention, of dreams,” Sousa said. “When you talk about Cabo Verde, people think . . . of sun, the beach, nice people, smiles, working people, but, as of now, something intangible.”

He hopes that Cabo Verde will become synonymous with such things as its delicious organic wines made from grapes grown in volcanic soils.

Rocky, rugged, and volcanic, Cabo Verde comprises 10 islands whose total landmass is slightly larger than Rhode Island. For more than 500 years, the archipelago that sits about 300 miles off the coast of Senegal was under Portuguese rule, and it was once a key point in the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

It was used as a point of reference — a cape at the edge of the continent — at a time before technology guided sailors from Senegal into the Atlantic Ocean. And that is where the country draws its name.


“They would say, ‘Look to the islands,’ ” Sousa said. “But really, we are not a cape. We are an archipelago.”

It is uncommon for an existing country to change its name in the global community, said Leo Dillon, who heads the Geographical Information Unit in the State Department’s Office of the Geographer a unit responsible for ensuring the boundaries and sovereignty labels on government maps reflect US policy.

Dillon also chairs the Foreign Names Committee of the US Board on Geographic Names, which approved Cabo Verde’s request to the United States.

Dillon said he can think of only three similar requests made in recent memory: the Ivory Coast, which became Cote d’Ivoire; East Timor, which changed its name to Timor-Leste upon gaining independence; and Samoa, which used to be Western Samoa.

“Then, of course,” he said, “there is the Burma/Myanmar thing.”

Military leaders changed the official name of the Southeast Asian country from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. A new leader was democratically elected a year later but the military cracked down again, barring her from power.

The US government, and several other English-speaking countries, persist in using Burma. The United Nations, however, recognizes the country as Myanmar.

Dillon said he changed Cape Verde to Cabo Verde in the State Department’s official list of country names as well as in several geographic databases. But, he cautioned, it will take a while for the switch to catch on.


“You’re going to see Cape Verde in the English news for quite a while,” he said. “In the colloquial sphere, it will be slow to be picked up if it gets picked up at all . . . just like when we changed from Ivory Coast to Cote d’Ivoire.”

News of the name change has yet to penetrate New England’s Cabo Verdean community, even among those who are usually the first to know about developments in their homeland.

“I didn’t know that,” said Paulo De Barros, director of the Teen Center at St. Peter Church on Bowdoin Street in Dorchester, while tidying up the papers on his desk recently.

Throughout the center, which serves a large Cabo Verdean population, are reminders of home. There are maps of the 10 islands, the country’s flag, and hand-painted, colorful tchotchkes emblazoned with the words “Cape Verde.”

De Barros said he found it a bit odd when he arrived in Boston from his homeland in 1991 and discovered that Cabo Verde had become Cape Verde. It was among the many cultural shocks he faced as a new immigrant. Keeping the name the same might help ease the transition for others, he said.

“For new arrivals, it gives them that pride and identity,” he said. “For Cape Verdean Americans, it might be a struggle to get into the habit.”

Joao Rosa, the founding director of Bridgewater State University’s new Institute for Cape Verdean studies, said he is engaged in a lot of work in the island nation but had been unaware that the country asked the world to call it Cabo Verde.

“There is a particular power from saying, or from stating, this is who we are,” he said. “You’re not being labeled as being this or being that, but you have the capacity to name yourself.”


Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.