Monday, August 06, 2007

What's In A Name?

To the disinterested observer a name is just a word we use to distinguish one thing (or person or place) from other things. As Shakespeare said: "That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet." But, as Juliet was to brutally find out, names are more than just mere words and far too often are accorded a disproportionate importance that far outweighs all reason. Names take on a life of their own and become symbols for much greater things that can arouse unbelievable acts of passion and violence. And so, with sudden or brutal changes of regime, amongst the first things to be changed are the names of streets, buildings, entire towns or even mountains. Such name changes are generally a way of trying to rewrite the past to control the present or to gain cheap, populist sympathies. One example that I've already mentioned on my travels is the recent, obsessive trend, in India, of renaming anything that might have colonial connotations.

Here in western Bohemia there used to a large German minority (in many places they were even the majority) who had lived side by side with the Czechs since the 13th century. Often they were very successful and dominated public life - when reading about the history of the region Czech names are few and far between, and many things that are deemed quintessentially Czech were actually invented by Germans, most notably the two national drinks: the foul herbal liqueur Becherovka, which is regarded by many Czechs as medicine and prescribed for any ailment, real or imagined, and Pilsner Urquell, the original pilsner beer. Therefore almost every town here also has a second, German name (e.g. the German name for the town of Cheb is Eger and they call Loket Ellenbogen, etc.). But that's not the main topic of today's post.

In the pretty border town of Cheb I was hosted by a friendly local girl called Aneta Daika. Now, any Czech seeing that name would immediately find it strange and demand to know what had happened to her ová. That's not because the nation has some strange gynaecological obsession but because every woman's surname in Czech has to end in -ová (or in some rare cases just -á). Therefore my mother's name isn't Jelinek like mine but ought to be Jelinková instead. The same goes for foreign females. Here in the press they talk about Angelina Jollieová and Segolene Royalová. The language just cannot deal with male and female surnames being the same. And so as soon as they are born Czech girls, unless they belong to a minority like the Roma or Magyars, are branded with an ová whether they like it or not. Most women are ambivalent towards their ová but some, like Aneta, think it stupid, archaic, sexist and might make things difficult for them outside of their country. But if every Czech woman must have an ová how do you get rid of it? The answer lies in a bizarre ceremony that Aneta will do today whereby she must go to the town of her birth and renounce her Czech nationality (though not her citizenship mind you) and take up a minority nationality. Therefore Aneta has decided to join the ranks of the small British minority, living in the Czech Republic, despite having no connections to Britain (except being fond of the comedy series Little Britain). Ridiculous as it may sound this is the only way for a Czech woman to get rid of her ová without an operation.


Inihtar said...

This post is too funny!! So if she joins the minority, does she also get a British passport (that would be too easy, wouldn't it?!?)

And as an aside, I agree with your sentiments about the name changes of Bombay and Madras (in your Bollywood or Bust post). But they weren't really RENAMED to Mumbai and Chennai, as you say. Madras has always been called Chennai in Tamil (the local language) and Bombay has always been Mumbai in Marathi. So it wasn't so much a renaming as a decision to abandon the anglicised versions of their names.

Erik said...

You're right Inihtar, that would be too easy, but pretty cool nonetheless. As for the name changes in India, it seems to me as if English is being singled out for abuse. For example the French are still allowed to call Mumbai Bombay (and Beijing Pekin), in fact most languages have at least a few foreign place names that are particular to them. (The Czechs call Venice Benatky, when in fact it should be Venezia anyway.) So I have nothing against Marathis calling it Mumbai, but why should I have to change as well? (funnily enough many locals still call it Bombay anyway). And for Chennai, as far as I know there were two villages, one called Chennaipatnam and the other Madraspatnam and the English just happened to pick one of them.