I still remember my school days when we learnt geography using textbooks printed in England. Map drawing was one of the subjects, and the map we drew most often was a map of “India, Burma and Ceylon". After drawing the mainland, we had to add an egg-shaped figure for Ceylon. All that has changed and we now have new names. Myanmar for Burma has been endorsed by the United Nations (UN), but many Western countries are yet to recognize the change.

I have spent years studying British history and geography, but I still find myself confused about the signification of words such as England, the United Kingdom (UK), Britain, Great Britain and British Isles. By one definition Britain is larger than Great Britain. Wikipedia says that Britain may refer to the UK of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. “Great Britain" was first officially used on the occasion of the marriage of an English princess and a Scottish prince.

Place names have begun to stoke political controversy. Dravidian parties made sure that Madras became Chennai and the state came to be called Tamil Nadu. Bombay has been changed into Mumbai, and there are groups to monitor its consistent use. Bangalore has followed. Officially the name has been changed to Bengaluru.

“Bangalore" was already in the news a few years ago because of an “Oxford dictionary botch" that sparked protests in Karnataka. In 2007, the Dictionary of World Place Names named Bengali as the language of the city. The secretary to the department of Kannada and culture said that such scant respect for the state’s history cannot be tolerated.?The?publisher apologized for the error, and promised to call back and pulp all remaining copies.

The choice of right names continues to be a very sensitive issue in many parts of the world. At the inauguration of a stadium in Grenada financed by China, the band played the national anthem of rival state, Taiwan. Grenada Prime Minister Keith Mitchell said: “I am very saddened. This unfortunate error breaks my heart."

A similar gaffe marred the solemnity of a meeting between Chinese President Hu Jintao and President George W. Bush in April 2006. The two 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 the name was wrong. The Republic of China is the formal name of Taiwan, to be differentiated from People’s Republic of China.

At the moment all eyes are on Kolkata, where Mamata Banerjee’s government, with the support of all the parties, has decided to rename West Bengal as Paschim Banga. Several litterateurs, academics and other prominent citizens consider this change pointless. When there is no Poorab Banga, why should you talk about Paschim Banga? Among other names suggested, there were Bangabhoomi, Bangla, and even Bangadesh. Curiously, there are people who want to retain “paschim", as a memento of the pain and suffering that marked the birth of West Bengal. “Otherwise we are denying history," they say.

There was also a practical reason for the change. In an alphabetical series, West Bengal would be close to the bottom, and by the time its representative got the chance to speak, the people in the audience would have switched off. To find a place closer to the letter A was a distinct advantage.

The chief minister wanted the name to be used in all other languages, including English. This is a tall order. The countries of the world have their own practice in the use of names. America is called Meiguo in Chinese; Deutschland (Germany) is Allemagne in French. Greece is locally called Ellas, and in German it is Griechenland. Paschim Banga, too, will probably be rendered in different forms in other languages, modified to suit their sound systems.

V.R. Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and 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.

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