Countries That Start With 'Z' and How They Got Their Names

Aerial view of the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls
This view of the Zambezi River at Victoria Falls is near the border of two countries beginning with the letter "z." Can you name both of the nations that can lay claim to this natural beauty? Tuul & Bruno Morandi / Getty Images

If you were to explore the world alphabetically, you’d find 27 countries starting with "s" — like Spain, Sweden and South Africa — each with its own rich history and vibrant culture. But when you get to "X," the map draws a blank; no countries start with that elusive letter.

When you get to the end of the alphabet, countries that start with "Z" may be few and far between, but their histories pack a real punch.

From the dynamic landscapes and cultural heritage of Zambia and Zimbabwe to the historical significance of former nations like Zaire and Zululand, these countries hold special tales and traditions.

Countries That Start With the Letter 'Z'

Currently, only two countries start with the letter "Z," and they are both located in the sprawling continent of Africa. Zambia and Zimbabwe might be neighbors, but they each have their own unique flair and intriguing stories. Let's dive into what makes these two Zs so special.


Zambia is named after the mighty Zambezi River, a defining feature of the country’s geography. Located in southern Africa, Zambia is a landlocked country bordered by eight other nations.

When Zambia gained independence from British colonial rule in 1964, the name was chosen to symbolize a fresh start and a nod to its natural heritage. The Zambezi, which means "Great River," reflects the country's rich landscape and abundant water resources.

One of the Zambezi River's most spectacular features is Victoria Falls, located on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. As one of the largest and most famous waterfalls in the world, it's locally known as "The Smoke That Thunders." It’s a sight that’ll leave you speechless (and probably a bit damp).

And with water comes animals: Zambia is also renowned for its incredible wildlife. This paradise for safari enthusiasts offers a chance to see the Big Five — the lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and Cape buffalo, originally named by hunters for their difficulty to hunt on foot — and more.

For all of you foodies out there, don’t miss trying nshima, a staple maize dish that's as Zambian as it gets. It's usually served with relish, which can include vegetables, meat or fish.

Zambia is also one of the most urbanized countries in Africa, with a significant portion of its population living in cities like the capital, Lusaka. Visitors can explore vibrant markets, check out the Lusaka National Museum and enjoy the city's bustling nightlife.

Along with its bustling city centers, Zambia boasts numerous national parks and protected areas, reflecting a blend of urban and natural environments.


Zimbabwe got its name from the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe, a historical site known for its impressive stone ruins. When the country gained independence from British rule in 1980, the name was chosen to reflect its rich cultural heritage and break away from its colonial past as Rhodesia.

The name "Zimbabwe" is derived from "dzimba-dza-mabwe," which means "houses of stone" in the Shona language — fitting for a country with such monumental architecture.

Zimbabwe shares more than just a starting letter and a continent with Zambia. Both countries are home to the majestic Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, straddling their border. Both nations also offer vibrant wildlife experiences with numerous national parks perfect for safaris.

For culinary explorers, Zimbabwe’s signature maize dish, sadza, is quite similar to Zambia’s nshima. Sadza is a staple food in Zimbabwe, similar to polenta or grits, made from finely ground maize (corn) meal. It is a versatile dish that forms the cornerstone of many Zimbabwean meals.

To prepare sadza, the cook gradually adds maize meal to boiling water and stirs until the mixture reaches a thick, smooth consistency. The sadza usually cooks until it pulls away from the sides of the pot and the preparer can easily mold it with their hands.

In addition to its rich history and culinary delights, Zimbabwe offers a variety of activities for visitors. Explore the stunning Hwange National Park, renowned for its large elephant population and diverse wildlife. Or, visit the ancient ruins of Great Zimbabwe, a UNESCO World Heritage site that offers a glimpse into the country’s storied past.

Adventure seekers can enjoy white-water rafting and bungee jumping at Victoria Falls, while those looking for a more relaxed experience can take a sunset cruise on the Zambezi River.

Historical Countries That Began With 'Z'

We've already explored the contemporary nations that start with "Z," but there's more to uncover in history. Let's delve into the stories of Zaire and Zululand, two historical entities that played crucial roles in shaping their regions' pasts.


Zaire was the name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1971 to 1997. This name change occurred under the rule of Mobutu Sese Seko, who aimed to shed the country’s colonial past and promote an authentic African identity.

The name Zaire symbolized this new era of independence and pride. However, after Mobutu was ousted, the country reverted to its original name, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite the change back, the era of Zaire remains a significant chapter in Central African history, marking a period of both intense dictatorship and national identity transformation.


Zululand was a kingdom in what is now South Africa, prominent in the early 19th century under leaders like Shaka Zulu. The Zulu Kingdom was a formidable force in Southern Africa, known for its military prowess and organizational skills.

This kingdom played a major role in the region’s history before being annexed by the British Empire in 1887. Zululand remains a symbol of Zulu pride and cultural heritage, with its history reflecting the resilience and strength of the Zulu people.

The legacy of Zululand is still evident today in the cultural practices and societal structures of the Zulu nation.

6 Ways Countries Get Their Names

As you might imagine, a lot of thought goes into this complex and significant process, which is largely influenced by historical, cultural, political and geographical factors.

  1. Historical or mythological roots: Many countries are named after historical figures, tribes or mythological entities. For instance, Thailand means "land of the free," reflecting its history of avoiding colonization.

  2. Geographical features: Natural landmarks and geographic characteristics often inspire country names. For example, Nigeria is named after the Niger River, which flows through the country, while Iceland is named for its icy landscape. Japan, known as Nihon in Japanese, translates to either "origin of the sun" or "land of the rising sun," referring to its eastern location from China.

  3. Cultural or ethnic groups: Some countries might be named after the dominant ethnic group or tribe in the area. Botswana is named after the Tswana people, while Germany is derived from the Latin word "Germania," which the Romans used to describe the tribes in the region.

  4. Colonial influence: Many countries' names are influenced by their colonial history. Ghana is believed to be named after the ancient Ghana Empire, chosen during the country's independence from British colonial rule to symbolize a rich and powerful heritage. India derives its name from the River Indus, a major landmark for European colonialists and traders.

  5. Political decisions: Sometimes, names are chosen through political processes, especially during independence movements or regime changes. For example, the Czech Republic recently rebranded itself as Czechia for simplicity and modernization.

  6. Language and linguistic evolution: The names can evolve due to linguistic changes and local dialects. Algeria comes from the Arabic "Al-Jazair," meaning "the islands," referring to the small islands along its coast. The name "Philippines" honors King Philip II of Spain, reflecting its colonial past.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Countries That Start With 'Z' and How They Got Their Names

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