The discussion about Beijing and/or Peking rumbles on, and leads to the more general question of how we can decide what to call geographical locations in foreign countries. This doesn’t just apply to English, but to any language.
So far as I can see, there are only five ways of naming, and this post will not have room to deal with all of them.
The most arrogant, colonialist, way is to ignore the native name, and impose a new one. This happened with Mount Everest, Ayer’s Rock, and many other places outside Europe in countries that Europeans “discovered”, mainly from the 15th century on. In some cases, of course, the native name may not have been known, and there may even not have been a name. Did Greenland have a name before the Vikings went there? Did the Inuit have a name for it?
The second way is to translate the name into one’s own language. Obviously this only works if the name is already transparently a vocabulary word or phrase. For instance, the English name Greenland is a direct translation of the Old Norse. Similarly, New Zealand is called Nouvelle Zélande in French.
The third way is to borrow the name from another language. So in English, the German city of Köln is Cologne, borrowed from French.
The other two ways derive from the language of the “owners” of the name, and I shall discuss these in my next post.