From The Economist print edition
IN AN ideal world, each place would have one name which would be the same in every language. Yet politics, history and language rule out such simplicity. Sometimes the difference is minor (Londres, Londra, Londyn, Londen, Lontoo, Londynas and Londinium are all recognisable forms for the British capital). But place names can be outright baffling: who but a Latvian would know that a signpost to Igaunija points to neighbouring Estonia?
Such variants are called exonyms by geographers. Among the many eyebrow-raising facts in this excellent book is that the United Nations has an official committee of geographers to discourage their use. Such tidy-mindedness has proved difficult to enforce over the past three decades. Talking in English about the Schwarzwald rather than the Black Forest would sound pretentious. For untranslatable names, transliteration and transcription (yes, there is a difference) between languages and alphabets inevitably creates unauthorised variants. How on earth do you spell Warsaw if your language lacks the letter “w”?
And that is just the start of it. The real problems start when politics comes into play. One of the few things that poor countries can do to get the world's attention is to re-label themselves. East Timor recently became Timor-Leste; Upper Volta is now Burkina Faso; Zaire was Congo and is now Congo again (confusingly, so is its neighbour); Burma is Myanmar (at least for the ruling junta; the opposition prefers the old name). Name changes often try to shed relics of colonialism, real or perceived (so Mumbai for Bombay, Beijing for Peking).
Mostly, that just creates a lucrative line in new maps and atlases. But sometimes it also causes huge controversy. In theory, Macedonia, independent since 1991, is still struggling to persuade the world that it is entitled to that name. To placate next-door Greece, which fears separatism by the Slavs in its own province of Macedonia, it languishes under the clumsy “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, or FYROM. Such nomenclature is shorthand for political affiliation: if you speak of “Judea and Samaria” you are a Likudnik; if you call the same patch the “occupied territories” you are not.
The author is an able populariser of academic geography, and an expert guide to the bureaucratic, legal and political hierarchies that determine how places acquire, change and lose their names. His eye-catching title reflects the big argument about names in his home country, America. Two strong tides, one of prudery and the other of political correctness, are eroding a verbal landscape created by centuries of cartography and local usage. Now that “nigger” (which he calls the N-word) has become taboo in polite society, what happens to Niggerhead Point?
The author notes in passing that this cape on Lake Ontario was thus named because it was a point on the laudable underground railroad that helped thousands of escaped slaves to freedom in Canada. That interesting historical association survives in the first name change, to Negrohead Point (which remains on federal maps). But to call it merely Graves Point (as New York state maps do) seems a pity.
“Nigger” and “Jap” are now banned on American maps, though a Dago Gulch survives in western Montana. More puzzling to the non-American is the onslaught on the use of “Squaw”, which according to some activists (though not philologists) is not an innocent word for a Native American woman, but a derogatory term for her vagina. So Squaw Peak is now set to be renamed after Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman in the American army to be killed in combat.
Names with risqué connotations, be they deliberate or coincidental, fare a little better. Gayside in Newfoundland became Baytona in 1985, apparently in response to local homophobia. And Dingle Hole in New York was listed as a problem name, because dirty-minded officialdom smelt a resemblance to a gay slang word, “dingleberries”. Attempts to rename the village of Dildo, Newfoundland, have foundered on strong local opposition. Whorehouse Meadow in Oregon was renamed Naughty Girl Meadow in the 1960s, but has recovered its old appellation.
The author is clearly blessed with a good sense of humour, which, sadly, he partially suppresses, presumably in deference to the stiff-necked culture of American officialdom and academe. Another, odder, weakness is the illustrations: the maps in the book are cheap, monochrome reproductions, and there is no attempt to show what Bloody Dick Creek and Molly's Nipple look like in real life.
But the bigger point is well made. Maps are about power: the rich, powerful and victorious determine place-names, just as they write history. The final defeat for losers is when they are wiped off the map.