Stay on the Map with New Geopolitical Names

By Mark Nichol

I recently took a trip that encompassed layovers in Great Britain, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. And if you believe that, I’ve got a great deal for you on a bridge in Londinium. The truth is, none of the places I just mentioned exist — not by that name, anyway, or not as political entities.

Great Britain is the name of the island that constitutes most of what is properly known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually abbreviated to “the United Kingdom.” That nation consists of four other nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland (as well as many but not all of the small islands in the vicinity). If you refer to England, you should mean England — no more, and no less. And though the citizens of England are the English, those of the United Kingdom are not; they’re British. (I’ll leave further details to the denizens of that fair country.)

Czechoslovakia, with gratitude from our twisted tongues and fumbling fingers, divided itself peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia nearly twenty years ago, soon after the collapse of its Communist government. (The residents generally speak related but different languages, the geography of the two countries is distinct, and their religious habits and other cultural characteristics differ significantly.)

Yugoslavia, an unfortunate agglomeration of Balkan nations that held together against all odds for much of the twentieth century, collapsed in acrimony at around the same time. The two remaining constituent states out of eight states and provinces briefly held on to the name but were soon known as the nation of Serbia and Montenegro; however, they separated in 2006.

The former Soviet Union gave way in the 1990s to fifteen separate nations, including Russia (also known as the Russian Federation), requiring journalists to sometimes make a distinction between the nation of Georgia and the American state by that name, and releasing a bewildering array of multisyllabic monikers, many of them ending in -stan (Persian for “home of” or “place of”).

Have you ever been to Bombay? It’s now formally known as Mumbai, a more accurate pronunciation of the native appellation. Rangoon, in Burma (oops — I mean, Myanmar), is for the same reason now identified as Yangon.

Farther north, Greenland is now Kalaallit Nunaat (the indigenous name), and Canada broke off a portion of the Northwest Territories to form Nunavut.

What future changes can we expect? Belgium, for many years an uneasy union of the French-identified culture of the region of Wallonia (French: Wallonie) and the Dutch-identified culture of the area long known as Flanders (Dutch: Vlaanderen), is likely to cleave into those two entities. Many other new names may appear on maps in the near future based on nomenclature arising from shifting geopolitics.

The ephemeral nature of geographical names makes the idea of printed atlases and such seem faintly ridiculous, because such publications are to some extent obsolete as soon as they’re produced. But don’t let that keep you from consulting with an authoritative resource before you refer in writing to a foreign locale. Your best bet, however, is an online source.

Equally important, when you mention a place in a historical context, do use the appropriate name — for example, “Great Britain” in a Revolutionary War novel, “Czechoslovakia” in an essay about the Prague Spring, or “Yugoslavia” in an article about that country’s charismatic dictator, Tito. In addition, phrases such as “in the former Soviet Union” or “part of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire” help keep countries in their place.

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11 Responses to “Stay on the Map with New Geopolitical Names”

  • Emil A. Georgiev

    Mark,

    this is such a well written article! I do envy your style and writing skills -).

    Thanks,
    Emil

  • Donald Kaspersen

    One good online source for current designations for all countries is the CIA World Factbook which gives general information not only for each nation, but for many dependencies and well-known subdivisions of said nations. No spy-work here, just a handy collection of information about just almost every piece of ground on earth and the nations that hold them.

  • Biri

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the largest island of the British isles called Great Britain? Not as a political entity, but as a geographical one?

    Otherwise, I agree. Even though the Czech Republic is a bit of a mouthful (and no one uses Czechia, mainly because it’s atrocious), I still live there, not in Czechoslovakia. We’re a small country and it makes us happy when people get it right, especially after dealing with all the tourist hordes wanting to visit the scenic Czechoslovakia. And I’m sure the Slovenians (don’t confuse with Slovakians, Slovakia was part of Czechosovakia, Slovenia was part of Yugoslavia), Serbians and others will be happy as well.

  • Donald Kaspersen

    Remove the word “just” from the last sentence for clarity. Poor proof reading on my part. Sorry.

  • Marissa

    Doesn’t most of the world still call Myanmar Burma because most of the world doesn’t recognize the power of the current leader of the country?

  • Mark Nichol

    Donald:

    Thanks for your note. I had considered mentioning the CIA Factbook as a good resource for information about the nations of the world. It’s an indispensable resource for writers and editors.

  • Jumbie

    ‘Mumbai’ is NOT a more accurate pronunciation of Bombay.

    While Kolkata IS a more accurate spelling of Calcutta, ‘Mumbai’ was made up by Hindu political activists to ‘hindufy’ the name since ‘Bombay’ is actually taken from Portuguese.

    I believe the city of Allahabad was also renamed to something more Hindu sounding during this bout of linguistic posturing. There were other victims as well.

    ————————————-

    I also do not refer to Burma as Myanmar since I’m not taking on the edicts of a mad general who, among other silly things, relocated his entire capital to the jungle because his astrologer said it would be a good idea.

    Also of interest: Cote d’Ivoire is how most people seem to refer to the former Ivory Coast now. I’m going along with it, but I’m perplexed as to why we don’t start referring to other countries by their native-language terms, like, say, Deutchland, if we’re going to ‘Frenchify’ Ivory Coast.

  • Peter

    The worst case is the country just north of Greece, between Albania and Bulgaria. You can’t name it without getting in trouble with someone 😐

  • Joan

    The politically correct term to describe residents of Northern Ireland is not strictly “British.” Residents are allowed to hold either Northern Irish or British passports. There are a large number of people who feel their section of Ireland was signed over to Britain to stop the bloodshed of a war for an independent Republic of Ireland, with the understanding that the issue could be re-visited at a later time. Those people certainly do not call themselves British. They are Irish through and through. I have also spoken to people from Northern Ireland who agree with being controlled by Britain, yet they call themselves Irish as well.

  • venqax

    Joan: As the proud descendent of an at times irritatingly proud “Northern Irish” clan, I can tell you that we are British, if you must, Ulstermen more correctly. But NOT, by ANY MEANS are we…must I say it… Irish. Not through, around, or near!! 🙂

  • venqax

    MN: I think you’re are confounding a few different issues here. Yes, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia no longer exist. But Great Britain certainly does. And saying “say England, etc” makes no sense. Or should someone also say Ontario or NSW, if that is what they mean? Is it “wrong” or misleading to say you went to Canada or Australia? As for Myanmar, as pointed out, and Mumbai, the name changes are political, controversial, and not officially accepted by many.

    Cote d’Ivoire presents still another nonsensical change. The French name of an African country is supposed to supplant the English one in English? Why for gods’ sake? Is French supposed to be more authentic to the area than English is? Should we also say it’s south of Maroc and Algerie?

    Finally, we have perfectly valid EXONYMS for many places that serve English just fine. Just as the French go to Londres, and Amerique, we go to Venice and Florence and Rome and Munich and Moscow. Why not Bombay or Calcutta? Are they somehow less-deserving of English appellations? Of course not. Speaking otherwise sounds oafish, self-conscious and silly. Not to mention plain wrong 4 times out of 5.

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