What’s in a name? Everything!

What’s in a name? Everything!
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First Published: Mon, Mar 29 2010. 01 15 AM IST

Updated: Mon, Mar 29 2010. 12 54 PM IST
In January, a question was posed before the Gulf countries over naming the waterway that separates Iran from its southern neighbours. Should it be called the Persian Gulf, or is it the Arabian Gulf? Or is it just the Gulf? Iran, formerly known as Persia, objected to the use of any name other than Persian Gulf. The disagreement over this has led to the cancellation of the Islamic Solidarity Games scheduled to be hosted by Iran in April. Iran points out that Persian Gulf is the name recognized by the United Nations. Several medieval historians have used this name.
A number of Arab countries reject the term and insist on using Arabian Gulf. Iran as the host country for the games has been using the term Persian Gulf in logos and slogans and in printed material. The organizers of the games have accused Iran of flouting the decisions taken by the general body at a meeting in Riyadh. The games have been called off.
The study of place names is called toponymy. In tracing the origins and meanings of place names, toponymists sometimes come out with a mixture of legend and fact. There is a little town called Maidstone in Kent (England), which can be an example: Stories built around this name suggested that there was a maid turned into a stone here, like Ahalya of Indian legend. Turning from fiction to fact, we find that there is a river named Medway that flows through the town, and the name is derived from “Medweges tun” or Medway’s town. The Sri Lankan town of Jaffna is now called Yalpanam. The two elements of the name mean lute and town, an allusion to the story of a blind lute player who received the land as a grant from the ruler.
When the colonial era ended, the newly independent nations wanted to establish their identity, and one of the steps they took was to replace the anglicized names by the original names in the local dialects. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe; and Salisbury became Harare. In colonial India, the standard map which was used in schools carried the names India, Burma and Ceylon. Burma has become Myanmar and Ceylon has become Sri Lanka.
A Tamil group in Sri Lanka has gone a step further, and revived “Eelam” as the name of the country. The group wanted to create Tamil Eelam as a separate state, and called itself the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Sri Lanka had a Persian name, Serendip. This name now does not represent a geographic location. Serendipity refers to the chance occurrence of fortunate events, a well-known example being the discovery of penicillin.
Illustration: Shyamal Banerjee / Mint
India has followed the trend in restoring older place names. This was a smooth transition in most cases. Trivandrum, Alleppey, Calcutta and Bezwada became Thiruvananthapuram, Alappuzha, Kolkata and Vijayawada. The exotic Danish name of Tranquebar was replaced by Tharangambadi in Tamil Nadu. The new name Chennai is a total departure from the earlier Madras.
The use of names for places continues to be a very sensitive issue in many parts of the world. In April 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao was on a visit to the US. The US and Chinese presidents stood at attention as an announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem of the Republic of China followed by the national anthem of the United States of America.” The right anthem was played, but it was too late. The Republic of China is the formal name of Taiwan, a rival to the People’s Republic of China. This diplomatic gaffe marred the dignity of that momentous meeting of two of the most powerful men in the world.
A conflict from names may be brewing in Costa Rica, where the presidential candidate has pledged to name a stadium being built in San Jose after Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. China has made a donation of $83 million (around Rs376 crore) to the project.
Returning to the Gulf impasse, Iran was not content to merely voice its protest over the use of the wrong name. Last month, Iran’s transport minister warned that aircraft using any name other than the Persian Gulf on their in-flight monitors will be banned from entering Iran. If they persist in this use, the planes will be impounded.
Airlines operating in India, too, have been concerned with old and new names. The name Mumbai has now replaced Bombay on world airline maps. The airport has been named the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. But when it comes to airport codes, the change is not easy. Mumbai retains its old airport code, BOM. It would be impracticable to change airport codes, as freight and passenger movement are heavily dependent on the network of codes. For one thing, baggage despatch could go haywire, since codes are used to mark baggage destinations. Even more serious consequences on passenger transport and security cannot be ruled out.
The name Cochin was represented by the code COK. With the name changed to Kochi, one would expect KOC. But KOC is the code assigned to Koumac airport in North Caledonia. Mumbai cannot be contracted to MUM because Mumias in Kenya has already taken up this code. Calicut has changed to Kozhikode, but the airport code continues to be CCJ. An Internet search shows that there are 9,501 airports on record, with their own identification codes.
The International Air Transport Association, which controls the assignment of codes to the airports of the world, cannot be expected to change the codes whenever names are changed in different parts of the world in the name of political correctness.
To end with a tidbit, apocryphal perhaps, but relevant: Mangalagiri, a small town near Vijayawada, has the second longest railway platform in India, with Kharagpur holding the world record. How did Mangalagiri get the platform? The story is that the platform was approved for Mangalore, but its code MAQ was misread as MAG for Mangalagiri and the platform was built there. The lesson is clear enough.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Mar 29 2010. 01 15 AM IST