Why Name Changes are Bad

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

[Picture of an Old Globe]I AM going to argue here that we ought to refuse to accept requests from abroad to change English names of countries and cities on the grounds that it is potentially manipulative, definitely confusing, and that it robs that country of all respect due from an historical association.

[Name Card]Before we look at cities and countries, I think we can relate to this argument on a personal level just for a little bit.

In western cultures, a man’s name is the same as his reputation; family is important. Name changes tend to be all about females being given away by their father and family, and taken in by another man and his family, and adopting his family name.

[Picture of a Quill pen]Pen and stage names are about protecting family names. Throughout western history, actually changing a name has immense importance, and is something not done lightly.

The result is that it tends to only be done to escape a dreadful past, to break with the old and make a new start with a new identity.  It happens most often with refugees, asylum seekers and criminals.

So what ought we to make of countries that change their names?

The correlation here between countries and people is evident; countries can be merged/ married, and a rename can reflect and strengthen the event.  Otherwise I think it is a really bad idea.

We ought to stand up against this happening, we should resist on the grounds that it is perfectly acceptable for countries to have many names as a result of language.

  • For example, English for Scotland is “Scotland”, but French for “Scotland” is “Ecosse”. “Allemagne” in France is “Germany” in English and “Deutchland” in German. “Tedesco” in Italy means “German”.
  • This is true of first names of people, for example, “William” in English is “Guillaume” in France.  Another example would be “Mary” in English is “Marie” in France, “Maria” in Italian, and “Mhari” in Gaelic. Same with John, Jean, Jan, Ian, Johannes.  I am as happy that initials and names would change as a person travels as I am uncomfortable in trying to get foreign pronunciations correct.

[Flag of Yugoslavia]We all got used to the USA, the USSR and Yugoslavia, so we are not used to 50 individual states, 15 broken up soviet countries, and 6 or 7 former Yugoslavian countries. There are now 203 countries, and we shall have to try our best to keep up, but it is made all the more difficult because of post-colonial changes — “French Somaliland” changed name to “Territory of the Afars and the Issas”, and is now “Djibouti”. Then “Spanish Guinea” changed to “Equatorial Guinea”, “Portuguese Guinea” became “Guinea-Bissau”, and “British Somaliland” and “Italian Somaliland” merged to be “Somalia”.

[Map of Africa]I can see the reasons for a name change, when it indicates a break with the past colonial or political systems — but Africa is just taking the mickey…

[Various Congo flags]“French Equatorial Africa” became “Chad”, “Gabon”, “Middle Congo” and “Ubangi-Chari-Chad” so far so good, but then “Ubangi-Chari-Chad” turned into “Central African Republic”. “Middle Congo” changed name to “The Republic of Congo” (but is known as “Little Congo”, “Congo” and “Congo-Brazzaville”). “The Republic of Congo” is quite different from “The Democratic Republic of Congo”. “”The Democratic Republic of Congo was formerly, in turn, the “Congo Free State”, “Belgian Congo”, “Congo-Léopoldville”, “Congo-Kinshasa”, and “Zaire”!

[Zimbabwe flag]That’s pretty confusing, and mostly unnecessary in my opinion. You may even argue that this post-colonial argument applies indirectly, or by association when “Northern Rhode[South Rhodesian flag]sia” changed to “Zambia”, and “Southern Rhodesia” turned into “Zimbabwe”, I am not entirely convinced, but when “Ruanda” became “Rwanda” and “Urundi” became “Burundi”, I have to say that these seem like silly little changes for their own sake, and I would have ignored them.

My particular favourite hate in this respect is “Beijing” instead of “Peking”.  Sorry, but both are western attempts to make the same sound, I reckon we ought to have just stuck with “Peking” for all the difference it makes.

  • We’re stuck with Peking Duck, but no Peking — how odd is that?
  • We still hear about The King of Siam, Siamese Twins and Siamese cats — but Siam is now Thailand!
  • We also get “Ceylonese Kormas” and “Ceylon” Tea, yet the country wants to be called “Sri Lanka”.
  • I  am able to get Bombay style curries, but Bombay wants to be known as “Mumbai” (Mind you, even more confusingly, “Bombay Duck” is actually fish!).

“Burma” is still OK by me, it means something to me (it’s mentioned in lots of books that I have read) — I don’t actually like “Myanmar” —  and do you not think we would see Iran in a more respectful light if the name had remained the ancient, impressive and historical “Persia”? Persian carpets suggest mystical luxury, not quite the same as Iranian carpets?

A cut from a past reputation might account for “Kampuchea” now going as  “Cambodia”, “East Pakistan” once being “Bangladesh”, and “Kolkata” being “Calcutta”, what I am arguing is that we ought to resist such changes.

Even the ones mentioned above, the post-colonial ones.  I would be happy to stick with Ceylon, Rhodesia and Ruanda — and I would expect a Ceylonese person to understand that Ceylon translates to Sri Lanka just as Ecosse translates to Scotland.

Unless there is a compelling reason to change, and unless the name change is close to the original, I would suggest that we refuse to go along with requests from abroad.  Why should we have to throw away all our maps, rewrite history books, and try to keep up with silly name changes when there is already more than enough political and sovereign change to keep us busy keeping up.

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2 Responses to “Why Name Changes are Bad”


  1. […] Republic of Congo ”. “”The Democratic Republic of … Read the original post:  Why Name Changes are Bad « RT1 Share and […]

  2. d'Amieu Says:

    Who do you mean by “we?” If the government and/or people of Ceylon want their nation to have a name that is in their own language or has more meaning to them, then they should be able to (and can). “We” have no say in the matter.

    The world is constantly changing. Simple name changes aside, sometimes countries appear or vanish, older countries we might have been used to splitting or merging (Yugoslavia is a nice example). The maps are going to need to be redrawn anyway, and this way, the cartographers can make some more money.

    You must also remember that English is not the language of the world (yet). And technically, “Myanmar” is English, and French maps will be French, etc. If we really were going by their languages, there would be a number of scripts on one map. We’d see things like:

    កម្ពុជា
    إرتريا
    საქართველო
    Україна

    So be glad that on the maps you see you get help pronouncing these names by having them written in the Roman script (Cambodia, Eritrea, Georgia, Ukraine).

    I see where you’re coming from completely, but I disagree with your view. I personally dislike names like Ceylon, for instance, as the island already had a name before Europeans discovered it, and the European name shouldn’t be the name of the country if it’s not European. On the other hand, I prefer Zaire over the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for obvious reasons.

    Good post.


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