It’s all in a name: "Kingdom of Norway" vs. "Democratic People’s Republic of Korea"

Sometimes it seems bad countries come with long names. North Korea is “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea”, Libya is “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, and the like. But on the other hand, there’s plenty of counter-examples — it’s the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” and “Republic of Cuba”, after all. Do long names with good-sounding adjectives correspond with non-democratic governments?

Fortunately, this can be tested. First, what words are out there? From the CIA Factbook’s data on long form names, here are some of the most popular words used by today’s countries, listed with the number of occurrences across all 194 names. I limited to tokens that appear >= 3 times. A majority of countries are Republics, while there are some Kingdoms, and even a few Democracies.

(146 of) (127 Republic) (17 Kingdom) (8 the) (8 Democratic) (6 State) (6 People’s) (5 United) (4 and) (4 Islamic) (4 Arab) (3 States) (3 Socialist) (3 Principality) (3 Islands) (3 Guinea) (3 Federal) (3 Commonwealth)

Now, we can group countries by included words and look at how democratic they are, as according to Freedom House‘s political rights scores. They look at a number of political freedoms — free elections, ability to run for office, power sharing, lack of military intervention in government, etc. to formulate the rating. The following chart shows the average political rights score per group of countries with the given word (actually, substring) in its name.


The upper rows show a substring and the number of names that are matched by it, and the average PR score. (These groups occasionally overlap.) The lower rows are several example countries for reference. So Republics are ever so slightly less democratic than your average non-Republic, and also amusingly, Kingdoms edge them out too. But Democratic, People’s, Socialist, Islamic and Arab countries are definitely the big-time un-democracies, while the only clear winners on the other side are Commonwealths and Principalities. Here are the members of the smaller groups:

Score   Name

1       Kingdom of Belgium
1       Kingdom of Denmark
1       Kingdom of the Netherlands
1       Kingdom of Norway
1       Kingdom of Spain
1       Kingdom of Sweden
1       United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
2       Kingdom of Lesotho
5       Kingdom of Tonga
5       Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan
5       Kingdom of Morocco
5       Kingdom of Bahrain
6       Kingdom of Bhutan
6       Kingdom of Cambodia
7       Kingdom of Thailand
7       Kingdom of Swaziland
7       Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

2       Democratic Republic of Sao Tome and Principe
3       Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
4       Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
5       Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
6       People's Democratic Republic of Algeria
5       Democratic Republic of the Congo
7       Lao People's Democratic Republic
7       Democratic People's Republic of Korea

1       Federated States of Micronesia
1       United States of America
1       State of Israel
2       Independent State of Samoa
2       United Mexican States
3       Independent State of Papua New Guinea
4       State of Kuwait
6       State of Qatar
7       State of Eritrea

1       Federal Republic of Germany
1       Federated States of Micronesia
1       Swiss Confederation
2       Federative Republic of Brazil
4       Federal Republic of Nigeria
5       Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
6       Russian Federation

4       People's Republic of Bangladesh
6       People's Democratic Republic of Algeria
7       People's Republic of China
7       Lao People's Democratic Republic
7       Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya
7       Democratic People's Republic of Korea

6       Arab Republic of Egypt
6       United Arab Emirates
7       Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
7       Syrian Arab Republic
7       Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

1       United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
1       United States of America
2       United Mexican States
4       United Republic of Tanzania
6       United Arab Emirates

5       Islamic Republic of Mauritania
5       Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
6       Islamic Republic of Pakistan
6       Islamic Republic of Iran

1       Commonwealth of Australia
1       Commonwealth of The Bahamas
1       Commonwealth of Dominica

1       Republic of the Marshall Islands
4       Solomon Islands
6       Republic of the Fiji Islands

1       Principality of Andorra
1       Principality of Liechtenstein
2       Principality of Monaco

4       Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka
7       Socialist Republic of Vietnam
7       Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

I just think it’s striking there’s such a small set of words used to describe countries, and that so many use “Republic”. It speaks to (some sort of) triumph of liberal politcal ideas that even the most dictatorial regimes have to at least pay lip service to them. This has certainly been going on for a while; I suppose names have been moving in this direction for a few hundred years.

I also looked at simple word lengths of country names. It’s not exactly the clearest bubbleplot ever, but if you go ahead and force a linear model (least-squares regression) on it, turns out each word contributes 0.26 points of un-democraticness. And if you viciously remove those lower right outliers (UK and Sao Tome), that coefficient bumps up to 0.39.


Boring details:

  • For the 2006 CIA Factbook information, I used an XML version described here and located here. For every country it gives a “conventional long form” name. If there is none, I used the standard short name. I think the Wikipedia List of countries page might have the same information as this.

  • The ratings are Freedom House’s Political Rights (“PR”) scores for 2006. (They also have a highly correlated Civil Liberties score; I should’ve used the overall average score but am too lazy to redo it all now.) Therefore this analysis doesn’t include any of the extinct but excitingly named communist countries like the German Democratic Republic. Freedom House actually has historical data going back decades, so this could definitely be looked at; presumably this would further tilt the weight of “socialist”, “people”, and “democratic” to being non-democratic.
  • Strings and more in Ruby, plots all from R, and the occasional assist by Excel. Learned some new tricks too.

Update 4/2010: I have uploaded data and R analysis code, to

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16 Responses to It’s all in a name: "Kingdom of Norway" vs. "Democratic People’s Republic of Korea"

  1. Mark McConville says:

    Calling one’s country a “republic” just means it’s not a “kingdom”. There is absolutely no implication of “liberalism” or representative democracy.

  2. Adam says:

    There have certainly been some cases, especially in the renaissance, of the use of “republic” without any overt liberal ideological meaning, but I don’t think it holds water to say it has “absolutely” no meaning beyond “no king”.

    Certainly, in the wake of the American and French revolutions, such disavowals of monarchy were not made purely in the interest of nomenclatural accuracy.

  3. J L Smith says:

    @mark. Only sorta. There are lots of ways of running a country that don’t include having a monarch that aren’t republics: theocracy, oligarchy etc etc. The common definition is as you say, but a tighter definition (Webster definition B) states that a republic is by the consent of the people – the etymology is res publica, after all, the thing of the people.

  4. Rosie Redfield says:

    A colleague of mine pointed out a parallel to the name-length effect in the titles of scientific journals. The longer the name of the journal, the lower its standards. There are a few exceptions (Proceedings of the National Acadeemy of Science of the USA), but in general journals such as Cell, Science, Nature are where the best papers show up.

    In the student handout where he proposed this relationship, his (fake) example of a bad journal with a long title was The Lower Slobovian Journal of Molecular Biology and Applied Metallurgy.

  5. Ran says:

    Another complicating factor: some governments have moved up or down in Freedom House’s rankings since adopting the name. For a better comparison, we’d probably want the country’s ranking at time of name adoption. (As in, a repressive dictatorship might call itself “The Socialist Democratic Republic of Rhodestan and Providentia”, and later open up and become more free under later dictators. It’s like the original repression that the name correlates with.)

  6. menshevik says:

    @ J. L. Smith: But historically, haven’t most oligarchic regimes been called republics once the name was coined? The original, Roman republic certainly has been described in such terms (and it kept calling itself that even when it was ruled by emperors). Another example of a monarchy calling itself a republic was France during the first years of Napoleon’s reign.

    On the other hand, democratic republics can be called Empires by their citizens (e.g. Felix Grundy of Tennessee on the eve of the War of 1812: “I feel anxious not only to add the Floridas to the South but the Canadas to the North of this Empire.” Note also that the official title of the Weimar Republic was not republic, but “Deutsches Reich”, and the word “Reich” was normally translated as “empire” so long as there still was a German emperor. (Although “Reich” can also be translated as “kingdom”, “realm” and even “commonwealth”).

    Sometimes people tried to avoid using the term “republic” because of its Latin, foreign origin, preferring instead terms like “free state” (in some languages other than English, this is just one word, e.g. German “Freistaat”), “commonwealth” (e.g. Cromwell’s regime but also some US states) or “Eidgenossenschaft” (confederacy, literally “oath-company” or “oath-comradeship”).

    Finally: One surprising omission – the official name of Greece would seem to translate into English as “Greek Democracy”.

  7. Joshua says:

    Ran: Countries are indeed aware of the symbolism attached to some of these words. Thus, when countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia became democratic in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they all dropped words such as “People’s” or “Socialist” from their names.

    Relatively few democratic countries are likely to keep words with nondemocratic tendencies (including, ironically, “Democratic”) in their names for a long time.

  8. Glenda says:

    Ads frequently mention one word prominently that is in fact the exact opposite of the item being offered for sale. Trailer park have billboards calling themselves luxurious; luxury cars have billboards explaining how economical they are. It’s interesting to see that countries do the same thing. Shame we can’t come up with some handy data for examining job postings, resumes, profiles on dating sites, real estate listing, etc.

  9. undeadgoat says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the legitimate thing for a head of state to call himself used to be king, but then after WWI especially kingship was not necessarily “good PR” for a newly-established government. So people called themselves “presidents” instead. Same deal with republic versus kingdom — the last kings to install themselves were directly after the fall of the Ottoman empire, and any newer government is a “republic”.

  10. menshevik says:


  11. Mike Love says:

    Nice. and I thought I had too much time on my hands.Mik

  12. Fredrik says:

    While your hypothesis is reasonable and interesting, your statistics leaves a lot to be desired, which leads to the wrong conclusions. I do not mean to point finger, but political bloggers with high impact have picked up on this.

    In the first figure, the bar plot, you only report the mean for these labels, and not the variance. Thus, we have no idea if the differences are significant or not. Since the labels with many samples (e.g. “republic”) are close to the average, and those with few (e.g. “arab”) are deviating, it is reasonable to conclude that these labels have nothing to do with the “democratiness” of a country.

    In the second figure, I can quickly estimate that the line you plot has correlation coefficient about 0.02 and significance (p-value) about 0.14 (see wikipedia for these standard terms in statistics. The p-value I cannot say for sure, since I don’t know the exact number of data points). This means that you have a very weak correlation which is not significantly determined. This hardly change if you remove the two unjustified outliers. The conclusion is that there is no relation with number of words and democratiness.

    You need to condition your data otherwise to get significant results. It could be interesting to show if there is a significant difference between the distributions “democratic” and everything else, or something of the like, and preferably use several measures of democracy and freedom.

  13. Brendan says:

    Oh yes, the statistical rigor here leaves a lot to be desired. I meant it tongue-in-cheek, especially the last bit with the regression fit.

  14. Oisín says:

    So the main takeaway from this is that the use of the word “Democratic” in a country name is always ironic.

  15. Pen Gaines says:

    The word “democracy” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution because the founders/framers desired for real democracy to be utilized within the free society—not the government. The 1787 Convention in Philadelphia—after deciding not to amend the Articles of Confederation, a Union of State Legislature—selected the Virginia Plan of a three-branch, republican form of government. They went one step further and had the U.S. Constitution guarantee this form of government in all States. Yet, the Party System claims that the U.S. Government is a “democracy form of government” and allows this as an answer on the Citizenship Test, along with three or more other falsehoods. What is worse is that most Americans, and partcularly members of the political process, are not aware and do not fully understand what and how the founders/framers defined a republican form of government. The prerequiste, the elements and factors are defined in two key documents. If those interested and cannot locate these documents, these will soon be a part of a series of E-bookettes and E-books which reveal three dozen lies now being taught in schools and universities and used by the media to mis-inform the American people.

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