Monday, December 08, 2008

Changing Place Names: Would You Fall in Love in Jesselton? Or Kota Kinabulu?

As I listened to coverage of the terrorist murders in India's financial capital (sadly, one rarely hears news from that part of the world unless it involves the loss of human life), I noticed that the correspondents referred to the city by its official name, Mumbai, while the vast majority of Indians called it Bombay, its former name. My son-in-law, who comes from a city nearby, calls it Bombay, as does Suketu Mehta, author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found.

The Portuguese, who in 1534 appropriated the islands that would make up the city, called the area Bombaim, which may mean "good bay" or "little bay." When the English took over in 1661, after receiving the island as dowry for Catherine de Braganza, who married Charles II, they Anglicized it to Bombay. Hindi- and Urdu-speakers called it Bambai, while Marathi- and Gujarati-speakers called it Mumbai. In 1996 the government of Maharashtra renamed the city Mumbai, in an effort to remove colonial names. Mumbai is derived from the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi.

Other cities in India have had similar changes: Madras became Chennai in 1996 because Madras was believed to be a Portuguese name (a contraction of Madre de Deus), or more likely from the Madeiros family. Although Chennai predates Madras, quite a few of the residents still refer to the city by its old name.


Malaysia has also changed names--most notably Jesselton, in Malaysian Borneo, which was renamed Kota Kinabalu--literally, the city of [nearby] Mount Kinabalu--in 1968. I suspect the new name has been more accepted there, but Malaysian singer Pete Teo's hit, "Jesselton Tonight," uses the old name. But its line "Would you fall in love in Jesselton ere days of 'burn baby burn' hearkens back to earlier days. "Burn baby burn" refers not to H. Rap Brown's slogan of the 1960s but to the destruction of forests for agriculture.


Other countries have been much more successful in getting new names to stick. I don't expect Zimbabwe to revert to Rhodesia after Robert Mugabe is out of power. Nor will Kinshasa go back to Leopoldville. If a name represents a despotic government, it usually will be replaced. Leningrad is now St. Petersburg, thus replacing the name of one despot with that of an earlier one (though Tsar Peter the Great had the modesty to name it for the saint who shared his name). Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad in 1925, but Nikita Khrushchev renamed it Volgograd in 1961. I suspect that someday Myanmar will again be Burma. In fact, virtually all the opponents of the despotic Myanmar government call the nation Burma.

But the most successful sub-Saharan African country, the Republic of South Africa, has kept Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, etc. , even though they're reminders of the colonial past. Maybe they've decided that changing the name doesn't change the reality.

But if a name change is to be truly successful, it needs to be supported by the people. Had India changed Bombay to Mumbai in 1947, in the days of independence, the people might have embraced it. But to change the name a half century after Indian independence and without any popular referendum made no sense. But then, the expense of changing it back may make even less sense. There's the old joke about the expense of changing Boulder Dam to Hoover Dam--that it would have cost less if Hoover had changed his name to Herbert Boulder. So I suspect that Mumbai will continue to be the official name of India's largest city, while its residents will keep calling it Bombay.

9 comments:

Ropi said...

I, as a quite conservative person, oppose this idea and I am glad it is not true for Hungary.

Lisa said...

I have a hard time keeping up with place name changes, even when they took place ages ago. It's no wonder Americans are so terrible at world geography! Just when I knew where everything was in Eastern Europe - it wasn't, and I practically give up on keeping the African nations straight :)

And even though the names were changed before I was born, I still miss the idea of a Siam or a Persia.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bombay sounds much more exotic to me than the new name.

Peter said...

Around here they tend to add names to the same monument or street. Washington National Airport is now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, for instance. The locals call it "National," and they probably will even if they took "National" out of the official.

From Wikipedia: "Built in 1963, the bridge was originally named the "Cabin John Bridge" because of its proximity to the community of Cabin John on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. On May 30, 1969, the bridge was officially renamed the "American Legion Memorial Bridge" . . . .
For many years, Washington, D.C., area traffic reporters on the radio continued to refer to the bridge as "The Cabin John Bridge". However, the American Legion asked reporters to call the bridge by its official name.[citation needed] The reporters complied with that request."

The traffic reporters started doing that about fifteen years ago, I think. Almost forty years after all this began, most locals still call it "the Cabin John."

Governments seem out of touch sometimes when they rename things.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, so glad you're back and with such an interesting, informative post. Thank you. As for name changes, here in Los Angeles, all the people who fled Iran when the Shah was deposted only call themselves Persian. And it seems to be an insult, otherwise. The biggest community of Persian Jews outside of Iran is right here in Beverly Hills -- I love that about Los Angeles, how it's a city made up of many mini-cities (Koreatown, Chinatown, Japantown, Little Armenia, etc.). And didn't Ceylon used to be something else or is that the other way around?

steve said...

Ropi--I wouldn't be surprised if there were some place name changes after the fall of Communism. There were some pretty hard-line Stalinist regimes in the 1950s. But I can't think of any specific examples. I know that in Germany, Karl-Marx-Stadt has been changed back to Chemnitz.

Lisa--A quick check of Wikipedia shows that the country we now know as Thailand was Siam imtil 1939, when it was renamed Thailand, From 1945 to 1949 it was again Siam, and has been Thailand again since 1949. With all the turmoil going on there, maybe it will go back to Siam again.

Again, per Wikipedia, Persia seems to be a foreign term--the people have always called themselves Iranians, from Aryānām, a proto-Iranian word, from the ancient Zoroastrian Avestas. That's right--the Aryans that Onkel Adolf idealized were Iranians!

Charles--I agree. I don't think Mumbai Gin would sell very well.

Peter--An interesting tale. I think New York has finally given up on the Avenue of the Americas. The last time I was there, the street sign said Sixth Avenue, with Aveneue of the Americas as secondary.

Elizabeth--Ceylon is now Sri Lanka. I was in L.A.'s Little Tokyo the day after Hirohito died--every storefront had a picture of the Emperor. One of the main characters in the novel I'm trying to write is the daughter of a Parsi,which means Persian (I think in Gujarati). I'm not sure if the Parsi community in Los Angeles has a neighborhood, but former L.A. Philharmonic conductor Zubin Mehta is a Parsi.

Elizabeth said...

The area where the majority of the Parsi community lives is Westwood and Beverly Hills. There was a big article about the community in The New Yorker a year or so ago -- if you can, look it up because it was really so interesting.

Steve said...

(The other Steve) Well, Alaskans call the mountain Denali and it is only the Senators from Ohio who keep it officially Mt. McKinley.

And I doubt Thailand will ever go back to Siam. In Thai it is Mueang Thai, or Country of the Free. No dictator would change that, nor would a democratic government!

steve said...

Steve--I'm sure you're right about Thailand. It's just that unlike other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand hasn't been under colonial rule, so Siam doesn't have the stigma of colonialism. T