Naming Names

What’s in a name? Mine’s Richard; what’s yours? If you answered that out loud, I thank you very much; you’re far too kind. What if someone gets your name wrong? What if, even though you’ve corrected them, they continue to use the incorrect imaginary version of your name that they’ve just come up with – for no discernible reason – for the next millennium? What would you think then?

One thousand years of misery and torture. It sounds a little extreme, but it’s what a lot of countries have put each other through, and continue to do. I suppose it’s time for an example or two, just to get us going. In the UK, our capital is known as London; in France, and all French –speaking lands, it is known as Londres. That’s not a difference in regional pronunciation; that’s fully renaming it.

A more startling example is Bangkok. In the English language it’s a faintly risible name; across the rest of Europe it loses much of that context, but it largely keeps its spelling and/or its pronunciation. In Thailand, however, it is known as Krung Thep Maha Nakhon. It is often shortened to Krung Thep, but not Bangkok. Not by the people for whom it is their capital. That’s “City of Angels” to you and I.

Back to my own green and pleasant land: Its full name is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Now, that’s a long name for a tiny collection of puny islands in the North Atlantic, but what do people know us as? A lot of people call us England, and that’s just going to annoy the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish. A lot of people call us the UK, and that’s more or less right.

A lot of people refer to us interchangeably as Britain, or Great Britain (a name I haven’t heard a person from the UK use to refer to their home in a decade) and that’s wrong: Great Britain is the largest island of the British Isles, a group of islands which also includes the Isles of Man, Wight and Scilly, The Orcades, Hebrides, Channel Islands, and Ireland. The name Britain excludes all of those other places and more, and that will never do. They’re all very lovely and well worth a visit.

In Northern Europe, people refer to us as various forms of Great Britain: I imagine people think we’re being sarcastic when we call ourselves that, but it really is just the name of our island. The French actually get it more or less correct, for once, referring to us as Royaume Uni – The United Kingdom.

How often have the names we know places by become representations of the arrogance and of the assumptions of the past? Who was it who decided that the name Beijing should be pronounced as Peking? I can see the pasty face of the merchant or civil servant now, barely paying attention, taking the name of the eternal city from an “uncivilised savage”. Millennia of history being blithely ignored.

How often have the names we still know places by become representations of colonial oppression? Where is Madras, for instance? Does it occupy the self same space as Chennai, by any chance? The arrogance of Beijing’s mishearing follows through in Mumbai’s “Bombay” (that one courtesy of the Portuguese), in Kolkata’s “Calcutta” (also including the British-built trade post, “Fort William”) and Benglaru’s more famous “Bangalore”. Ignorance has put these names in our history books forever.

Whether The Judean People’s Front or The People’s Front of Judea, names, and the arguments over them, can make the blood boil: it’s how wars start. Thankfully, times tend to enlighten themselves, and we move ever closer to a time when place names are those given to the land by its shepherds.

Names have always fascinated me. I grew up in a town called North Shields; as children we were taught a story about the origins of the name. A clergyman, so we were taught, built a fishing hut on the shoreline at the mouth of the Tyne. This type of hut, known locally as a Shiel, became so popular that this small fishing area took on their name. So we were taught. The town across the river seems to have done the self same thing and so became known as South Shields.

I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, named for the castle which had been newly built there in 1080, upon the Tyne. By the time I was born, the new castle was far from new, or a castle: only the keep still stood. Newcastle’s earliest recorded name was Pons Aelius – The Aelian Bridge, after Emperor Hadrian’s family name – after the Tyne crossing found at the Roman fort there. It was also known as Monkchester, before the castle was built.

Away from more complex and confusing local place names is Tynemouth. Its name comes from the fact that it sits at the mouth of the Tyne. Odd that. It is pronounced “Tyne-Mouth”, not “Tyne-muth” or “Tin-muth”, as are occasionally proffered to bewildered Geordies. Just a tip.

If you’re a frequent visitor to this blog you’ll know that I have a bit of a thing for the Nordic Lands. Nordic place names, whether in Scandinavia, Iceland or in England have been a source of fascination for me for years. Did you know, for instance, that any (predominantly Eastern) English town name ending in “-by” comes from the old Norse for “town”? Whitby is White Town, for instance; a By-law is a town law. The suffix “-ley” means “glade”, so my home town “Whitley” is a White Glade.

Norway has perplexed me. Is it the way to (or from) the North? Old English texts certainly took this view, referring to the country as “Norþweg” (“Northway”). However, the name given to a united kingdom often begins with the home of the conquering king. In Norway this was Harald Fairhair, from the fjord-striped South of Norway. The “narrow ways” (“Nór veg”) of Fairhair’s fjords are a fair foundation for the name of his future kingdom. Subsequent Anglicisation, such as “Norðmanna land” can hence be viewed as folk etymologies, a way of understanding something which is tricky or lost.

As for the etymology of the “Swede” aspect of Sweden, no one can yet agree, which is such a shame.

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