EDITOR’S NOTE: Yeah, it’s been awhile. I’ve been busy with various things — great stuff like having grandchildren stay with us while their parents were on a trip, less-great stuff like seeing doctors about post-COVID stuff (I’ve got another such appointment in the morning). And one of the things that happens when it’s been awhile is that I won’t let myself do quick, easy posts, thinking that I should come back with something big. Which is stupid. Anyway, here’s something semi-quick-and-easy.
When I saw this column this morning (at least, it was “this morning” when I started this piece a couple of days ago now), I jumped on it right away. It was my kind of thing — a story that actually explains why the names of things, and places, and people change. It was headlined, “Kyiv vs. Kiev, Zelensky vs. Zelenskyy, and the immense meaning of ‘the’.”
I appreciated it, although I sort of wish it hadn’t stopped with “the Ukraine” or “Zelensky” or “Kiev.” Those, by the way, are the names that are now out. I mean, I certainly knew about “the Ukraine,” and sort of understood why there was no “the” any more, although I’d be hard-pressed to explain it.
I mean there’s no particular rule I know of that explains why it is that people who live in Lebanon or Crimea or wherever feel a loss of sovereignty and self-determination when there’s a the, but I get the connotation. “The” means you’re not a country (unless you’re the United States, but we have kind of a weird country name anyway — although I love it). It suggests you’re just a region in another country, owned by somebody else. It doesn’t say it; it just suggests it.
But since this all happened recently enough (although you kids won’t think so), I understand that we dropped the “the” when the Soviet Union went kablooey, as a way of embracing Ukraine as a separate country. And there are important reasons right now for remembering that.
I was less clear on Kyiv. In fact, since I don’t do broadcast news much (not even NPR, lately), I’m not entirely sure how I’m supposed to say it to distinguish it from the more familiar “Kiev.” But this piece makes the why very clear: “Kyiv is the appropriate transliteration of the Ukrainian name of the country’s capital, whereas Kiev is the name of the city in Russian.” OK, I’m on board. I’ll do my best to say “Kyiv,” and pronounce it correctly. And if I write it the wrong way here, y’all call me on it.
How about whether the name of the Ukrainian president is “Zelensky” or “Zelenskyy.” Well, even though the latter looks like a typo, that’s the Ukrainian way. The single y is more Russian. So Zelenskyy it is, I suppose.
Even though I’m sure it would make my head hurt to have it explained more fully how we get such a fine distinction in English when, you know, we don’t do Cyrillic. I’m just not going to ask.
But sometimes I do wonder about such things. Which brings up the one that’s driven me nuts for decades, mainly because no one has ever given me a good reason that I can remember. And that’s why I said above that I wish Benjamin Dreyer, the copy editor who wrote the above piece, had gone beyond place names particular to Ukraine. (Although I know why he didn’t, because I understand the concept of a “news peg.”)
I mean the mystery of how “Peking” became “Beijing.” Even though I’ve read explanations a number of times over the years, I have to confess I don’t get it yet. I mean, all “Peking” was trying to do is represent phonetically what it sounds like when people who speak a language that doesn’t use anything like those letters say the name of their capital city. So why would it change, and change so dramatically?
So, before I wrote this, I went and read the Wikipedia article on it, and sort of understood what happened — as well as anyone who does not speak Mandarin can understand both the language, and the ins and outs of Red China’s efforts to control how it is spoken and represented.
Which brings me to why I’ve always been creeped out by the very idea of the names of things being changed for political reasons — even reasons that seem quite benign to me. So it is that I fully understand why “Mount McKinley,” which I had learned as a kid was the highest peak in the United States, had disappeared, and “Denali” had appeared in its place. But it still worries me a little.
I think it’s because I read Orwell’s 1984 at such a young age — and then reread it repeatedly over my lifetime, appreciating it more and more each time (sort of the way I do with “His Girl Friday,” only without the laughs). For those of you who have not spent your time that way, one of the most horrifying and indelible ideas is the diminution of the English language to the point where people are unable to even think in ways that would free them from that oppressive dystopia.
It’s not exactly the same thing, but I’ve always thought of it when I’ve considered such things as the Soviets renaming St. Petersburg (or, briefly, Petrograd) “Leningrad.” And it causes me to look at any such change with suspicion.
So, it takes a bit of self-persuasion to accept such changes as “Ukraine” without the “the,” and “Kyiv.” But I do.
But as for “Beijing,” well, in looking it up, I ran across this anecdote that was very, very Orwellian to my mind:
In the English, “Peking” was the preferred and dominant form through the 1970s. Beginning in 1979, the Chinese government encouraged replacement of the Wade-Giles romanisation system for written Chinese with the pinyin romanisation system. The New York Times adopted “Beijing” in 1986, with all major US media soon following. Elsewhere in the Anglosphere, the BBC switched in 1990. The Times of London used “Peking” until 1997, “when, according to The Irish Times, its correspondent in China was summoned to the Foreign Ministry [of the People’s Republic of China] and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times didn’t stop using ‘Peking’. It surrendered.”
I don’t know exactly why this is so important to the folks who run the former “Peking,” but an anecdote like that bothers me a lot…