Political Geography

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??

11 thoughts on “Political Geography

  1. Diane Nicholls

    Thank you for a really thought-provoking post, Hugh. Shakespeare asked ‘What’s in a name?’ – quite often the answer is, an awful lot of politics!

    I hope you don’t mind if I correct one detail:

    “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.”

    Leningrad became Saint Petersburg again after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, which is 30 years after Stalin’s death, rather than 15.

    1. I never mind corrections. They are good for the soul — and they may prevent later writers from going astray! The “thirty” refers back to the previous date, 1961. Stalin died in 1953. The confusion here may be a result of my trying to write too telegraphically. Thanks again for the fix.

  2. Harry

    About two years ago, I attended a panel discussion among authors and journalists from Iran, none of them admirers of the current regime. They all insisted that “Persia” was a name adopted when the region was under control of the Greeks: the land that belonged to Perseus. Before the Greeks arrived, it was called … Iran, a national identity centuries older than Islam.

    Also, I can report that efforts of real estate developers to create new names do not always work, at least in New York. A large building with luxury-priced apartments is proudly boasting that it is in, yes, Hell’s Kitchen. And while several street names in Manhattan were changed after the Revolution (King and Queen streets were renamed for patriots), we still have some reminders, like Prince Street and Delancey Street, the latter named for a wealthy land-owning family who supported the Crown and fled to Canada once the rebels prevailed. In 1912,there was a big push to rename the street “Strauss Boulevard” after Isadore and Ida Strauss, who died on the Titanic; the Strauss family had supported many institutions to improve the life of immigrants. But everyone knows that Delancey Street is a key thoroughfare on the Lower East Side, and the change was never adopted. Eventually, a prominent intersection was named Strauss Square.

    1. I haven’t double-checked Herodotus, but think the Greeks also referred to “the land of the Medes and the Persians.” The Medes seem to survive only in the old one-liner” “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian.”
      I am glad to know about the developer who is getting some reverse spin out of “Hell’s Kitchen.” I couldn’t begin within the limitations of a blog to list all the euphemistic names for New York City neighborhoods. A few examples: East Village for Lower East Side, Cobble Hill for the original Dutch Punkiesberg, Boerum Hill for North Gowanus, and Bay Ridge for Yellow Hook (this last name change was made after a major outbreak of yellow fever in 1848). Then there is Blackwell’s Island, which was refined into Welfare Island and then the current Roosevelt.
      If I should do a second column on place names, it’ll probably start with Greenland, so-called by Eric the Red, according to twelfth-century Islendingabok, because he thought “people would desire to go there if the country had a good name.”

      1. I appreciate your comments; I have lived long enough in New York to see several of these changes myself, and I could add a lot of fanciful names now being bandied about. But the East Village is not really a “euphemism.” It described what actually happened when young people and artists priced out of the West Village moved their society to the east. It’s still contested ground: Latinos call it Loisida;skeptics call it Alphabet City (there’s an Avenue A, Avenue B, etc). In the late 19th century, it was Klein Deutschland, an ethnic enclave abruptly destroyed by the “General Slocum” disaster: some 1,700 women and children died when an excursion boat sank.

        In short, it’s not just real estate speculators who change names; it’s people competing with space on a small island.

  3. Luc 007

    Dear Hugh,
    It is always a great pleasure to read your column.
    Please allow me two comments :
    – “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.” Please note that “most of the rest of the world” excludes, as often, the French. We call these islands “Iles Malouines”, because they were first settled by seafarers originating primarily from Saint-Malo, one the most important harbours of France in the 18th century, the inhabitants of which are called “Malouins”. Like most islands in the middle of (almost) nowhere, the Falkands had a bit of an eventful history, having first been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci, then visited by the Dutch and the English, but they seemed to have been really first occupied permanently by the French, spurred by Bougainville. Followed years of rivalry between France, England and Spain (then Argentina as successor to the latter in the region) over the islands, as they provided a convenient stop for sailors hunting seals and other coveted preys in the southern Atlantic ocean.
    – “In the United Kingdom, the Battenburgs turned into the Mountbattens”. You oversaw a typo here, as the original name was “Battenberg”, hence the literal transcription into “Mountbatten”, “Berg” meaning “mountain” in German, whereas “Burg” means originally “fortress”. Incidentally, the name of the British reigning dynasty may probably change with the next sovereign. As it happens, the dynasty name changed from Hannover to Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after Queen Victoria’s death : her eldest son Edward VII, who became king after her, had inherited his family name from his father Prince Albert of Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha. Normally, a similar thing should happen when Prince Charles (or Prince William) becomes king, as he should really be considered, strictly speaking, a Mountbatten and not a Windsor. Perhaps will the new dynasty be known as Mounbatten-Windsor ? Politically, Windsor was a fantastic choice as it really anchored the name of the dynasty in ancient history and recalled that it was stemming from William the Conqueror, the builder of Windsor castle. Again the French aren’t too far …
    One final comment about change of names, as Paris, my home city, has witnessed quite a few. The emblematic “Place de la Concorde” (the city’s largest square at the lower end of Champs-Elysées) was laid out under the reign of Louis XV and was first named after him. Of course it became “Place de la Révolution” in 1792 and Louis XVI was beheaded there just a year after. After the revolution evolved into somewhat of a more peaceful republic under the Directoire and later the Consulate, it took its actual name to stress the fact that the past was the past and that the French people was reunited and should forget political divisions. After Napoleon’s departure, the kings returned and the square became known as “Place Louis XVI”. Another revolution later, in 1830, a new king (first time we had a real parliamentary monarchy) was put in place, and he changed it back to “Place de la Concorde”, quite aptly so, because his own father, although a cousin of Louis XVI, had voted in favour of the latter’s execution in 1793 ! Politics, politics …

    Best regards,

    1. Harry

      After four centuries and counting, Shakespeare still has it right: “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”

    2. I am glad to know about the earlier incarnation of the Falklands as the Malouines. French explorers, aside from Joliet, are given short shrift in American school books. A good place to start for anyone who wants to know more about French exploration in North America is “Champlain’s Dream,” by David Hackett Fischer. (Fischer is an indefatigable researcher and a fine writer. Anything he writes is worth reading.)
      You are right, of course, about the typo: Battenberg is correct. According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, however, the family name of the British royal house was changed to Windsor by George V in 1917. And Place de la Concorde certainly has more serene vibrations than Place de la Revolution, as the square was called when the guillotine, also known euphemistically as “Madame,” “the national razor,” and “the national shortener,” operated there during the height of the Terror (1793-94). Politics, politics, as you say.

  4. Delfin Carbonell

    I still have to make an effort not to say “Idlewild International Airport”. This slip gives my age away.
    Everywhere dogs bite, and reading the Spanish Classics you find names of streets in, say, Madrid that have been renamed many times over. Franco and Co. renamed many streets which in turn were renamed after he died and so on and so forth. A never ending story.
    But I think you are right about writing telegraphically. The age of the Feuilleton is dead, and will be buried soon. The telegram is also dead, but long live telegraphic writing!
    Thank you for this toponymic treat…

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