02 December 2008

Things I did not know this morning: 'What's in a name?' edition

Christopher Hitchens writes
When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, that 'those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay,' he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it—after a Hindu goddess—Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta's work for it by using the fake name Myanmar. (Bombay's hospital and stock exchange, both targets of terrorists, are still called by their right name by most people, just as Bollywood retains its 'B.')
Hitchens points to another Slate article which explains:
When did Bombay become Mumbai?

Officially, in 1995. That year, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra and presided over a coalition that took control of the state assembly. After the election, the party announced that the port city had been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city's patron deity. Federal agencies, local businesses, and newspapers were ordered to adopt the change.

I actually wondered about this when I titled yesterday's post "Mumbai," but wasn't in the mood to look into it. Now, as they say, I've learned something.

I've always thought the connotations of demo- and geonymics to be pretty interesting stuff.

I had a history teacher in high school that would become mightily offended if students dared to use what she thought of as the ignorant, Eurocentric name Genghis Khan, preferring, at various times, Cengiz Han, Jenghis Khan, or Chinggis Qan. I was never clear why a Turkic name for a Mongolian leader was less imperialist or more proper than an English one, especially since the class was being taught in English. I was even less clear why, if she was going through all the trouble to achieve "authenticity", she would want to pick from amongst terms that are actually titles instead of using Tem├╝jin, which is the fellow's actual name.

I actually had this very argument with her at one point. Like all people over a certain age do when trapped in a logical corner by those decades younger she resorted to "because I said so." This woman, by the way, put very much worth in her membership in a generation which was "radical" and "challenged authority." Eventually I gave up arguing and simply began correcting her every time she used an English name in place of a more authentic one. "Cristoforo Columbo," I would point out helpfully. "Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili," I would interject. Because I said so, indeed.


  1. I grew up in India. I believe Mumbai was the original name for the city, and Bombay the Anglicized version. Most of the people called it Mumbai anyway, especially when talking in English. The "right" name for anything is completely arbitrary, but in this case it doesn't appear like they were that wrong in renaming it -- they were restoring the original name that was mostly in use anyway. Similarly with Calcutta --that's an Anglicized version of Kolkatta, the original name.

    I have no cites to back this up, though. this is just based on what I remember.

  2. Thanks for the info. For the record, I wasn't trying to weigh in in favor of either Mumbai or Bombay. Like you say, a lot of these decisions are so arbitrary but can carry hefty political connotations for some people.

    For instance I've always thought it interesting that all of the style sheets were changed a decade or two ago to start using Beijing instead of Peking, but few people have switched to using Firenze instead of Florence.