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What’s in a name?

Gqeberha is the latest city to have a name change  — could South Africa follow suit?

By Ricky Browne

Back in February Port Elizabeth in South Africa became the latest place on the map to ditch its objectionable name and change it to something considered more authentic and closer to its indigenous roots.

The new name for Port Elizabeth is Gqeberha  — which for people who don’t speak Xhosa is even more difficult to pronounce than it looks.

The town hall in Gqeberha

The name requires a kind of click – as used by Miriam Mkeba in her famous Click Song – which is virtually impossible for most of us to smoothly pronounce in the middle of a word. That click comes right after the G – and is represented by the q.

But many residents aren’t happy with the name change, and more than 66,000 people signed a petition protesting the new name. Some don’t mind changing the name, but prefer something like Nelson Mandela City – which apart from honouring the country’s first black president, would have the added advantage of being easier to pronounce.

In the first few lines of her song, Makeba noted that the click noise was difficult to pronounce by English-speakers.

Miriam Mekeba helped make the click sound, the sound of South Africa

“In my native village, in Johannesburg
There is a song that we always sing when a young girl gets married
It’s called The Click Song by the English
Because they can’t say ngqothwane”

She may have been onto something. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_V3YOBUKN58&ab_channel=ThomasTsoiThomasTsoi

Gqeberha follows a long list of cities and even countries that have changed their names away from anything that might be a reminder of colonialism.

The city may not be named after him, but Nelson Mandela Bay is

Meanwhile, other South African towns with names that hark back to colonialism – or worse, apartheid – might also want to change their names. Soweto – which means South West Township, may want a name that sounds African without being a reference to its origins in apartheid. Pretoria, named after an Afrikaaner hero, may also want a name change. Cape Town an Johannesburg could also be up for the chop.

Much larger cities have changed their names in the recent past, including Peking which was changed to Beijing and Bombay which was changed to Mumbai.

But even more far-reaching and fundamental is when a country changes the name of its nation. Here’s a list of some countries that have either had a name change change, or may have a name that some people find objectionable:

SWAZILAND

In Africa Swaziland became the latest country to change its name in 2018, becoming eSwatini – which must be the only country in the world to start with a common letter. The name means ‘land of the Swazis” so really isn’t all that different from the former name – but has the advantage of not sounding anything like Switzerland.

King Mswati checks out a guard of honour

The change was made by the country’s absolute monarch, King Mswati III,– but the name change didn’t go down well with everyone, with some people thinking that it would have been better for the King to try and solve many of the country’s economic and cultural problems instead.

Earlier, Upper Volta, also in Africa, decided to get rid ot its ridiculously European-sounding name and to call itself Burkina Faso. The new name means “Land of Whole Men” in a local language. Upper Volta wasn’t the only country that wanted to get rid of a name that tied it to Europe and colonialism. Rhodesia couldn’t be dropped fast enough when Zimbabwe became independent.

KENYA

Kenya is an interesting country – not for changing how it spelt its name, but changing its pronunciation . Under British colonialism, Kenya was pronounced KEEN-YA. But leter, under independence, when Jomo Kenyatta became President, the country changed that pronounce to honour Kenyatta – and is now pronounced KEN-YA, except by some people of white Kenyan descent who still prefer the original pronunciation.

A statue of the man known as Jomo Kenyatta

Actually, Kenyatta was a made-up name, which Kamau Ngengi, called himself in 1922 to identify himself more closely with his country.

CZECHIA

This is not just an African thing. Over in Europe the Czech Republic – once known as Czechoslovakia when it was united with Slovakia – changed its name to Czechia.

But like eSwatini, not everyone was happy or even aware of the change. The name was supposed to be like an official nickname – such as France instead of the Republic of France – but earlier last year, when Prime Minister of Czechia Andrej Babis was told in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that the UN now used the new name – he said:

A view of Prague, capital of Czechia

“I didn’t know this. I don’t like it at all,” he said, in the interview with The Wall Street Journal. “It’s because then you will confuse Czechia, Chechnya, I don’t know. I don’t like this. We are Czech Republic. We are Czechs. And I don’t know who came with such a stupid idea. Crazy,” he said.

The change was made by the country’s  septuagenarian president, Miloš Zeman.

MACEDONIA

But not all change comes from within. Macedonia, which was previously a part of Yugoslavia, was obliged to change its name when Greece insisted that it could not have the same name as one of its geographic and historical regions – and threated to block any attempt it might make to join the European Union. So in 2019 the country tried to oblige by changing its name to North Macedonia.

All the world’s a stage for North Macedonia

EIRE

Closer to home is Eire – at least it was, with the country of Ireland using that name on its stamps. But the Gaelic name, although its roots are ancient, never successfully replaced Ireland – which is really the English name for the island. In fact some people find the name Eire to be offensive.

That’s Ireland to you

Maybe if Northern Ireland changed its name to Eire, people in Ireland might change their mind about it.

MYANMAR

Over in Asia, Myanmar insisted in 1989 that people forget about the name Burma. Both are legitimate names, but Burma is still preferred by those who do not recognise the legitimacy of the military dictatorship which made the change in 1989. It also changed the name of its capital from Rangoon to Yangon.

Miss Myanmar made a plea for her country during this year’s Miss Universe contest

Nearby, and for similar reasons,  Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka. And West Pakistan changed its name to Bangladesh once it achieved its independence from Pakistan in the early 1970s. Even earlier, in the 1930s, Siam changed its name to Thailand. But Siamese cats didn’t care, and held onto their name.

KAMPUCHEA

Other Asian countries that changed their names at some point include Iran, which was previously Persia and Cambodia which was called Kampuchea under the horrendous Pol Pot regime of the Khmer Rouge.

Angkor Wat, as seen from the Phnom Bakheng temple. Photo: Jerry Redfern for The New York Times

Other countries that may be due a name change include South Africa itself, which really distinguishes itself as more of a geographical locator than an actual name. Only North Macedonia compares really.

AOTEAROA

Another name that grates, particularly with the Maori people, is New Zealand. The two islands were inhabited for centuries before the Europeans got there – and the preferred name is Aotearoa which means Land of the Long White Cloud. Ephemeral 

Will New Zealand be renamed for the length of its clouds?

If they ever do get around to changing their name, they may want to get the British Union Jack off their flag. Who but a vexillologist can distinguish Australia’s flag from Aotearoa’s?

XAYMACA

Jamaica can be proud of its name which is a version of the name that the original people gave to the island before the Spanish got there in 1494. The original Spanish transliteration of that word was the unique Xaymaca, but this was altered to the simpler Jamaica. The name means “Land of Wood and Water.”

X Jamaica makes it onto the map

Other countries in the Caribbean that take their name from the original name given by the original inhabitants include Cuba and Haiti.

BRITISH GUIANA

British Guiana changed its name to Guyana on independence in the 1960s. The name Guinea in country terms is like being called John in England – with a whole bunch of countries having a version of it, including nearby French Guiana and neighbouring Suriname, which started out as Dutch Guiana before becoming Surinam and then Suriname (with an e). Over in Africa you have Guinea Bissau, Guinea and Equatorial Guinea, and then to top it off you have Papua New Guinea in Australasia.

SAN JUAN

The name Puerto Rico is a mistake – it means rich port, and was supposed to be the name of the capital, San Juan, which in turn was supposed to be the name of the island. But something went wrong somewhere, and now the island has the name of what should clearly be a port, not a whole island.

Should San Juan change its name to Puerto Rico?

Maybe one day they’d like to flip the names back around. But right now they are still too engaged with figuring out if they want to remain a virtual colony of the United States, or become independent, or become the 51st state.

UNITED STATES

The United States of America is a name that many in the hemisphere find objectionable. True the country is composed of 50 states which are united as one country.

The divided United States of Mexico and America

But it’s the America part, which countries in the Americas – such as Mexico in North America, Central America and South America find to be insulting and domineering. Unlike Macedonia, its unlikely that the US of A will allow outsiders to dictate its name.

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