November 21, 2012

Improper nouns

Under: Language | News | Random thoughts

Barack Obama’s touring South-East Asia this week. At one stop on his tour he visited Aung San Suu Kyi, and referred to Burma – but when he met the country’s leader, President Thein Sein, he referred to Myanmar.

Names can be a problem, and this is a case in point. Myanmar is the name given to the country by its military leaders, and I myself prefer to call it Burma largely for that reason, and not because of any imperialist nostalgia.

Similarly, I think of Bombay as Bombay and not as Mumbai – again, not because I’m harking back to the days of Empire, but because, courtesy of the author Suketu Mehta, I understand Mumbai to be the name given to the city by a group with their own political agenda.

A town in Northern Ireland is possibly even more sensitive. Do we call it Derry, or Londonderry? The answer tends to depend on whether we’re Catholic and Republican (Derry) or Protestant and Unionist (Londonderry). Anyone trying not to show a bias one way or the other has a big problem.

Tricky, huh?

What do you think?

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