Political GeographyJune 18, 2012
By Hugh Rawson
Incensed over what it views as a Western-Arab plot, Iran on Thursday threatened to sue Google for deleting the name Persian Gulf from its online mapping service and leaving the body of water nameless
– The New York Times, May 18, 2012
The poor Google mapmakers. They were caught in the middle of a political controversy and wound up with a “nameless” compromise that couldn’t have satisfied anybody.
The Iranians have always insisted that this body of water between Iran and Saudi Arabia be called the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the Saudis and other Arab states prefer to think of it as the Arabian Gulf or, simply, The Gulf. This is an old dispute that flares up from time to time. In 2010, it led to the cancellation of the Islamic Solidarity Games – the Olympics of the Muslim world, in effect. Because Iran, the host nation, insisted on using Persian Gulf in promotional materials about the games and on medals for events, the Arab states declined to participate. Of course, Iran itself is a relatively new name (since 1935) for the country that used to be known as Persia. To the outside observer, it is a wonder that the former Persians haven’t insisted on calling this strategically important body of water the Iranian Gulf.
Arguments about place names crop up regularly all around the world. Many Israelis refer to the West Bank, the land between Israel and Jordan, as Samaria and Judea, thus drawing on biblical authority to support their claim to the territory. Argentina has not given up its claim to the Malvinas, but as long as this group of islands in the south Atlantic is controlled by Great Britain, they are likely to be known to most of the rest of the world as the Falklands. Then there is Myanmar, the name adopted by the generals who seized power in Burma in 1988. Despite the easing of repression in that country, the United States still refuses as a matter of policy to use the regime‘s own name for its nation. Thus, after meeting with Myanmar’s foreign minister this past May 17, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton said, “So today we say to American business: Invest in Burma.”
Changes in place names frequently reflect political changes, with the winner getting the last word. For example, Ishbiliya was the Moorish name for Seville (the Spanish name derives from the Arabic one), Nieuw-Amsterdam was renamed New York by the English, Constantinople was dropped in favor of Istanbul after the Turkish Republic replaced the Ottoman Empire, and Saigon was re-named Ho Chi Minh City following the unification of North and South Vietnam under Communist rule.
The break-up of colonial empires after World War II also resulted in a great many name changes around the world. Just to name a few: the British crown colonies of the Gold Coast and Ceylon became Ghana and Sri Lanka, the Belgian Congo evolved into Zaire and then the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Upper Volta became Burkina Faso, Dahomey became Benin, Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia became Zambia and Zimbabwe, respectively. Keeping track of all the new names made life difficult for the editors of reference books and atlases, while giving them the chance to sell more copies of new editions to replace those that had so quickly become outdated.
Place names also are changed frequently within countries. For example, when the Communists came to power in Russia, they put their stamp on the land by re-naming many cities. Tsaritsyn became Stalingrad; Saint Petersburg was converted into Petrograd and then to Leningrad; Nizhny Novgorod became Gorky. But the wheels kept turning. In 1961, after Stalin died and fell from grace, Stalingrad was renamed Volgograd. And fifteen years later, after the Communists lost power, Saint Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod were restored. As long as Russia holds on to the former German city of Königsberg, however, it almost certainly will continue to appear on maps as Kaliningrad.
Other names are changed because of negative political associations. This happened frequently during World War I. In Canada, for instance, Bismarck, Ontario, named for the first chancellor of the German empire, was changed to Kitchener, in honor of the famous British field marshal, and in the United States, Berlin Street in New Orleans was re-named Pershing Street, after the commander of the American forces in France. (Some prominent families also changed their names during this period for patriotic reasons. In the United Kingdom, the Battenburgs turned into the Mountbattens and the English division of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha branch of the Wettin family became the House of Windsor.)
The French made similar changes during World War II. After the liberation of Paris from the Germans, a number of avenues were baptized with new names. The Avenue de Tokyo and Avenue Victor Emmanuel III became the Avenue de New York and the Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, while the Avenue du Maréchal Pétain, named for the hero of World War I who went on to collaborate with the Germans in World War II, was changed to Avenue de la Division Leclerc, for the French unit that led the way in liberating the city.
Real estate developers also are famous for devising new names that they hope will attract business. Vacationers in the Bahamas are now lured to Paradise Island, which used to be known as Hog Island. In New York City, the formerly crime-ridden section called Hell’s Kitchen has been rebranded as the Clinton District. In Phoenix, Arizona, Rattlesnake Ridge has been turned into Summit Ridge. In France, the lower Loire, or Loire-Inférieure, was upgraded in 1957 into the Loire-Atlantique.
And so it goes, right back to classical times. The Romans changed the name of a Greek colony in Italy from Malowenta, meaning “rich in sheep,” but which they misinterpreted in Latin as Maluentum, or “ill-come,” to the upbeat Beneuentum, or “welcome.” The Greeks themselves changed the name of the Black Sea, originally called the Axinos, or “inhospitable sea,” to the safer sounding Euxine, or “hospitable sea.”
Not actually a geographic place but, with a length of 987 feet, large enough to be one was the Exxon Valdez, the tanker that hit a reef in Alaska in 1989, spilling some ten million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound. After being repaired, the tanker was put back into service, but with a new, fair-sounding name, Exxon Mediterranean. And by the spring of 2012, when the now toxic-laden vessel had come to the end of its life and was scheduled to be broken up in India, it had been renamed the Oriental Nicety, which looks like something you might see on the menu of a Chinese restaurant rather than in a scrap yard for dead ships.
Oil spill? What oil spill??