Wednesday, November 7, 2007

city names, country names

This morning's Washington Post had this essay on geographical names. My favorite misuse of a difficult (for English speakers) city name came when Bill Clinton exited a Cologne / Koeln restaurant and told 2000 adoring Germans, including hundreds of media people: "Ich bin ein Koelsch." He figured he was echoing John Kennedy's "Ich bin ein Berliner," but was rather stating "I am the kind of beer Cologne is famous for: Koelsch. Should have said: "Ich bin Koelner."

The Globe, Politically Corrected

By Geoffrey Wheatcroft
Sunday, November 4, 2007; Page B02

When the England cricket team last toured India, fans back home had an interesting choice. They could pick up one newspaper in the morning to read the report of a game played in Bombay, or another paper to read about a game played in Mumbai.

It was the same game and the same town. The "gateway to the East," whose colors and scents Rudyard Kipling always remembered from his early childhood, was known to most of the world for centuries as Bombay but has now had its name politically corrected (as it were) to Mumbai.

Most Western newspapers have obediently followed suit, but then that has been the fashion of the age. For years, baffled readers have pored over the news from Sri Lanka only to realize that it was what they used to call Ceylon, and then from Myanmar, only to work out that it was Burma. Before the name Myanmar was imposed on us by its repulsive junta, it was Democratic Kampuchea instead of Cambodia, to please the Khmer Rouge, of all groups.

This continual tinkering with names is not only environmentally wasteful -- think of all the road signs and textbooks that have to be altered. It's also tedious and illogical. Maybe it's time to call a halt.

In the case of Myanmar, Joseph Lelyveld, a former executive editor of the New York Times, justified his newspaper's decision to follow these governments' leads essentially in terms of good manners: "It is not our business what a country wants to call itself." Indeed it isn't, but is it that country's business what we call it? I once wrote an article for Lelyveld's paper about the brilliant musical life of the country its citizens call Suomi, but that might have puzzled readers, so I called it Finland. And if Myanmar, why not Deutschland or España?

Meanwhile, there has been a separate tendency toward "geographical correctness," so that atlases more and more use local versions of names. Traditional English forms such as Rheims and Lyons are frowned upon and become Reims and Lyon. But this too is obviously inconsistent, otherwise we should be writing about "the 1938 München agreement" and "the 1957 Treaty of Roma."

Across Europe and elsewhere, the English formed our own way of saying and spelling names, which was more flattering than insulting -- and was, after all, reciprocated. An Italian or Frenchman should be no more displeased by my saying "Venice " or "Marseilles" than I am by him saying "Londra" or "Édimbourg." In fact, some of those older forms do survive in specific contexts. Are any feelings hurt if we wear clothes made of cashmere and angora (not Kashmir or Ankara), or keep leghorn chickens (not Livorno)?

To be sure, place names have often been fighting words. Some were changed for political reasons, over and again, so that a man could be born in St. Petersburg, grow up Petrograd and live in Leningrad before dying in St. Petersburg, without leaving the same street. And sometimes they reek of bitter national conflict. Whether you called the self-same town Pressburg, Pozsony or Bratislava depended on what national statement you wanted to make, German, Hungarian or Slovak, and so it went with Smyrna/Izmir (Greek or Turkish) or Fiume/Rijeka (Italian or Croat). In the far northwest of Europe, they facetiously say "Stroke City," intending the oblique stroke in the middle of Londonderry/Derry, as Protestant Unionists and Catholic nationalists respectively call the town on Lough Foyle (though the latter really ought to say Doire, the original Gaelic form).

While all such political and communal passions are sad enough, the worst reason of all for changing names is what the great H.W. Fowler in "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage" condemned under the heading "Didacticism." For centuries, English-speakers called the Chinese capital Peking, until one day we were all told to say Beijing. This wasn't even to placate national sensitivities; it was to appease academic drudges who thought there was a "correct" spelling of Chinese, though how can there be one in a language written in ideograms?

All this incessant, restless change makes language harder to understand. British soldiers used to write acronymic endearments on the back of envelopes to wives or sweethearts: "Holland" was "Hope Our Love Lasts And Never Dies," and "Burma" was "Be Undressed Ready My Angel." What can Myanmar possibly stand for?

And spare us the grand lady-who-lunches ordering an extra portion of Mumbai duck for her Beijingese.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include "The Strange Death of Tory England" and "Yo, Blair!"