[The world changes. Even within our own lifetimes. If you travel at all, you’ve probably visited some country that didn’t exist a decade or two ago—or one that’s got a different name than the one on the map in your atlas from high school, or even college. Towns, too, change names, some after revolutions or secessions, others because of cultural shifts.
[Several years ago, I went to the People’s Republic of China (known in my youth as Mainland, Red, or Communist China). I visited Guangzhou (previously Canton until 1949), Nanjing (Nanking), Beijing (Peking). Earlier I made a trip to Eastern Europe, stopping in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg—again; it had previously been St. Petersburg until 1914, too, and then it was Petrograd until 1924). I was also in Kiev, the capital of what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and had been the Ukraine before that. Today it’s just called Ukraine.
[More recently, I was in Istanbul, Turkey, for a week. It used to be Constantinople (until 1930) and before that, Byzantium (although that was before anyone still alive remembers). Turkey, of course, used to be Anatolia—but that’s a little like observing that France was once Gaul.
[When I was a teen, I went to school in Geneva, Switzerland. Locally, the city’s called Genève (French), and other Swiss call it Genf (German), Ginevra (Italian), or Genevra (Romansch). (Many people don’t know that Switzerland has four official languages, not just three.) Geneva’s on the shore of Lake Geneva—also known as Lac Léman, Genfersee, Lago Lemàno, or Lai da Genevra.
[Of course, I spoke mostly English in class, but in the social setting we all spoke a combination of French and English, shifting back and forth as the situation required. (We also spoke the lingua franca of international students, Franglais, but that’s another tale.) Naturally, I spoke American English, but most Europeans (and others) who studied English in those days learned the Queen’s English, so not a few common expressions were British. When I went into downtown Geneva, I rode the tram, not the streetcar or the trolley. (‘Streetcar’ in French is le tramway, in any case.)
[I went to college in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. One of our neighboring towns was Roanoke. From 1852 to 1882, it used to be Big Lick! (Towns still change their names for a variety of reasons. In 1996, in upstate Westchester County, New York, the town of North Tarrytown renamed itself Sleepy Hollow—the name Washington Irving had given it.)
[I was in the army for almost five years during the Cold War. I was stationed in West Berlin, as ROT-readers will know. GI’s in Berlin, 110 miles inside East Germany and still under occupation, referred to West Germany, formally the Federal Republic of Germany, as “the Zone”—because it had been the Allied Zone of Occupied Germany from 1945 until 1949. That wasn’t official, of course, just GI slang; but because the U.S. didn’t recognize the German Democratic Republic (until 1974), the official army designation for East Germany was the Soviet Zone of Occupied Germany, or SZOG. (By the way, the famous Checkpoint Charlie, the crossing point between West and East Berlin, was always Checkpoint Charlie, but because NATO changed the phonetic alphabet in 1956, Checkpoint Able, between the FRG and SZOG, and Checkpoint Baker, between SZOG and West Berlin, became Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo, which is how I knew them.)
[As it happens, I now live in New York—which used to be New Amsterdam.(until 1665). (It was also New-York, with a hyphen, for several decades in the 18th and 19th centuries.) In fact, my neighborhood, the Flatiron District, only acquired a name in about 1985. Before that, it was just “east of Chelsea,” “north of the Village,” or maybe “west of Gramercy Park”—nothing its own or very evocative. I was born in Washington, D.C., which used to be . . . well, nothing! The city didn’t exist at all (Georgetown was a tobacco port on the Potomac; the rest was swampland) until Pierre L’Enfant drew up his grand plans in 1791.
[Pronouncing place names can be tricky, too, as Liesl Schellinger observes. Virginia seems to have a corner on odd pronunciations in this country. (England is the king, I’d say. I mean, who’d guess that Leicester would come out lester and that Magdalen sounds like maudlin?) Back near where I was at college, the closest little town is Buena Vista. Spanish, right? Easy . . . NOT! It’s BYOO-na vista. Most Americans know that Louisville is LOO-a-vil and New Orleans is noo-OR-lins. But few non-Virginians know that Staunton is STAN-t’n. (Henry Fonda didn’t in Roots back in 1977. He called it STAWN-t’n!) Newport News? NOO-pert nooz. Botetourt County? BOT-a-tot. Buchanan County? Buck-AN-an. Loudoun County? LOW-d’n. (Maryland has a few gems, too. That town with the French-looking name north of Baltimore, Havre de Grace, is actually havver-duh-grayss, not (as my MFA directing classmate had her actors say in her thesis production of Paul Zindel’s And Miss Reardon Drinks A Little), HAV-duh-grahss.
[As the Times editor put it in T: “Globalization has made certain far-flung places seem a little less foreign, but that doesn’t mean they’re easier to pronounce.”]
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Moldova to Micronesia. Bombay to Burma. East Timor to South Sudan. For well-traveled sophisticates, the world is an ever-shifting big geography lesson.
Anyone can go to Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro or Beijing (ancestral home of Peking duck); but one day I would really like to go to Lodz, pronounced “woodge,” in Poland, so that when I come back and tell my friends where I’ve been, nobody will have the slightest idea where I was. It would also be fun to go to Lviv, Ukraine (formerly known as Lwow, Poland), for the same reason. There, though, it would be difficult. Would I call it luh-VIEW or luh-VEEFF (both pronunciations are allowed)?
In the game of one-upmanship furtively practiced by travelers, no victory is sweeter than visiting a place whose correct pronunciation is only known by the well-traveled few (and of course, by natives), and whose location is mysterious: Bazaruto beats Bermuda; the Marianas trump Miami. This honor is magnified if the country or city has recently changed its name, especially if there is debate over which name should be used, once you figure out how to pronounce it. This may partially explain why so many people rushed to explore Slovenia, Croatia and the Dalmatian coast after Yugoslavia ceased to exist, qua nation, in the 1990s: They wanted to be among the first to set foot on the rebaptized new slices, so they could return home bearing the proud souvenir of the right way to say Hvar (“hfar”) and Brac. (Do not be misled by the YouTube tutorial on the pronunciation of Brac, which is completely wrong: The Croatian island is pronounced “brotch.”)
But besides bragging rights, there’s also a practical value to getting the names right. Imagine the relief that would suffuse you if, while nibbling zakuski with a group of oilmen from Kazakhstan, you knew to call their largest city Almaty — rather than its Soviet name, Alma-Ata. And if you have plans to travel to the World Cup in 2022, keep in mind that the host country, Qatar, does not rhyme with “guitar.” It’s a little closer to “cutter.” Geographic gaffes can have consequences that are more than social — as a diplomat friend of mine learned long ago, when he accidentally ticked Colombo on his preferred posting list, when he meant Colombia. He ended up spending years in Sri Lanka (once known as Ceylon). Luckily, he liked it there.
Two years ago, a friend of mine won the sophisticated traveler’s triple crown by flying off to work in a city nobody had ever heard of, in a country that had formerly not existed, in a place nobody could point to on a map. She had taken a job in the newly minted South Sudan, which had once been controlled by Egypt, eventually graduated into being an autonomous region and, in 2011, achieved glorious republichood. Dozens of us sent her off in a shower of glad tidings, having no image in our minds of her destination (jungle? desert? coast? — and if coast, east or west?) but feeling like she was our own William Boot — the antihero of Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop” — headed to the fictional Republic of Ishmaelia. For a year or so, we vicariously reveled in her exploits on Facebook (baby leopards, savanna sunsets, Downtonesque house parties) until last December, when a couplike fracas occurred in Juba, the capital of the fledgling nation. The next thing we knew our friend had re-emerged safely in Kenya — which was known as British East Africa when Waugh was a lad.
Africa is not the only continent that presents rich opportunities for naming skirmishes. Last summer, a friend of mine invited me to join her on a trip to Burma. “You mean Myanmar?” I asked. She looked at me nervously. “I thought we were supposed to call it Burma, because of Aung San Suu Kyi,” she said, referring to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Burmese human rights activist who was held under house arrest for a total of 15 years by Myanmar’s military junta, and was released in 2010. I had thought the place was supposed to be called Myanmar now, because that’s more inclusive. But since I wasn’t sure, I asked the historian Thant Myint-U (grandson of the former United Nations secretary general U Thant) to clarify. He explained, “In British colonial times and until 1989, the country was called the ‘Myanma country’ in Burmese and ‘Burma’ in English. In 1989 the new military junta, as part of its nativist policies, decided that everyone should use the Burmese version of the name. It’s like the change from Cambodia to Kampuchea,” he suggested (Cambodia was called Kampuchea for much of the ’70s and ’80s, in case you’ve forgotten), and would be “the equivalent of Germany insisting that we call the country Deutschland in English.” In other words, unless you go around calling Germany “Deutschland,” you might as well keep calling Burma “Burma” (and you can hold on to your copy of George Orwell’s novel “Burmese Days” while you’re at it).
A similar problem presents itself with Bombay, which was renamed Mumbai in 1995. I called the Indian filmmaker Mira Nair, who lives in Kampala (2 points if you can name the country that’s in) to ask what she thought of the Bombay-Mumbai division. “I refuse to say Mumbai,” she told me. “I can hardly say the word, I have to spell it when I write in addresses, but for me it’s Bombay.” Bombay, she concedes, was the British term for the city, and has echoes of the colonial era. “But for many — and I am one of them — the idea of the city lies in the word ‘Bombay,’ ” she said. You don’t have to have grown up under the raj like, say, Kipling to think the city’s lush historic aura, and its towering monument the Gateway of India, are better conjured by the pre-1995 name. Just ask Suketu Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh and Rohinton Mistry, all of whom have written books inspired by Bombay — not Mumbai — this millennium; and Nair categorically refuses to consider retitling her breakthrough 1988 movie, “Salaam Bombay!” Currently she is making a film called “Bengali Detective,” set in Calcutta, which is now known as Kolkata (stress on the first syllable). And if you fly to Mumbai, by the way, your luggage stickers will read BOM, not MUM.
It’s no surprise that if you fly to St. Petersburg, in Russia (Russians nickname the town Peter), your luggage stickers will read LED, for Leningrad, which was what the city was called for nearly 70 years until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But the proliferation of nations spawned by the breakup of the U.S.S.R. provides countless opportunities for new passport stamps and exotic-name dropping — Tajikistan! Kyrgyzstan! Moldova! — that make world-rovers slaver.
Three years ago, a British friend exhilarated a passel of peripatetic friends (me included) when she invited us to a destination christening for her first child, in Russian Georgia — the country of her husband’s birth — which was known for most of the last century as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic. The flight was to be to Tbilisi — a cluster of letters that challenges the American tongue. How was I supposed to pronounce the name, I wondered. Should it be tuh-BLEE-see, (like, to blee or not to blee), as I’d heard it said by a journalist I knew who had a Georgian boyfriend? Or was it pronounced with a tiny shred of a T sound flickering ahead of the B — like, t-bee-LEE-see, as Russians I’d met in Moscow called it? Another name for it was Tiflis (tee-FLEECE or TIF-lis, depending on your nationality) but that was Frenchified and archaic, something you’d say only if you were a 100-year-old White Russian refugee from the Bolshevik era, sipping your tea and reading Turgenev in Paris.
Sadly, though, I could not go to Tbilisi (the drawn-out Russian way is right — t-bee-LEE-see) as I was going to be in Istanbul, which, of course, used to be called Constantinople. An old song goes: “Why did Constantinople get the works? That’s nobody’s business but the Turks.” But as the song also points out, even New York used to have another name — New Amsterdam: “Why they changed it I can’t say — people just liked it better that way.”
[Now what’s this business about folks from Montenegro and Monaco being Montenegrins and Monagasques? Are citizens of Palermo, Italy, really Palermitans and Glasgow, Scotland, Glaswegians? Demonyms, however, are a whole other puzzle.
[This article was originally published in T: The New York Times Style Magazine on 23 March 2014. Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based critic, translator, and moderator. She worked at the New Yorker for more than a decade and became a regular critic for the New York Times Book Review in 2004. Her articles and essays have appeared in the New Yorker, New York Times, New York, New Republic, Washington Post, Vogue, Foreign Policy, London Independent on Sunday, and many other publications.]