The name Chennai is a shortened form of Chennaipattinam, the name of the town that grew around Fort St. George, which was built by the English in 1640. There are two versions about the origin of the name Chennai: according to one version, Chennaipattinam was named after Damarla Chennappa Nayakudu, Nayaka of Kalahasthi and Vandavasi father of Damarla Venkatadri Nayakudu, from whom the English acquired the town in 1639. The first official use of the name Chennai is said to be in a sale deed, dated August 1639, to Francis Day of the English East India Company. According to the second account, Chennapattinam was named after the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple; the word chenni in Tamil means face, and the temple was regarded as the face of the city.
The city's former name, Madras, is derived from Madraspattinam, a fishing village north of Fort St. George. There is some argument among researchers about the exact origin of the name Madraspattinam. It has been suggested that the Portuguese, who arrived in the area in the 16th century, may have named the village Madre de Deus. Another possibility is that the village's name came from the prominent Madeiros family (variously known as Madera or Madra in succeeding years) of Portuguese origin, which consecrated the Madre de Deus Church in the Santhome locality of Chennai in 1575. It is uncertain whether the name 'Madraspattinam' was in use before European influence.
Some time after the English gained possession of the area in the 17th century, the two towns, Madraspattinam and Chennapattinam, were merged, and the English referred to the united town as Madraspattinam. The state government officially changed the name to Chennai in 1996, at a time when many Indian cities were being renamed.