Robert Fulford's column about place names

(Globe and Mail, June 11, 1997)

The news that Zaire must now be called the Republic of the Congo has elicited cries of dismay from mapmakers, editors, and geographers. Who can blame them? Imagine being a publisher who, a week before the Zairian government fell, sent out to the schools an expensive new map of Africa. Your up-to-the-minute cartography becomes, overnight, yesterday's mashed potatoes.

Life has always been this way for mapmakers, and for students, too. Change has recently accelerated (the former Soviet Union constitutes, all by itself, a cartographical nightmare), but name-changing is an old problem for those studying geography and history: almost everywhere in the world used to be called something else. When you finally work out the location of a crucial place in ancient history (Mesopotamia, say), you discover that you already know the same country as the location of something current (Iraq, in that case). High-school history students have to learn that Istanbul is the former Constantinople--a mystery mulled over in a pop song of the 1950s ("Why did Constantinople get the works? It's nobody's business but the Turks'.") Now there's a proposal to emphasize the European character of Istanbul by changing it back to Constantinople, another potential source of confusion.

I have always wistfully imagined that things might be otherwise. In such matters, I favour stability. Given the right, I would add an 11th commandment: Thou shalt not, ever, change the name of thy dwelling place, even if you find the old name annoying. I might put in sub-sections, too. For instance, Thou shalt not willfully change the name of thy neighbour's dwelling place. If somewhere is called Deutschland, don't think you can start calling it Allemagne or Germany just because those sound nicer. Don't change Roma to Rome for the hell of it. And finally, when you work out a transliteration from another alphabet, don't keep fooling with it. Changing Peiping to Peking to Beijing may be some scholar's idea of a good time, but it irritates and confuses the rest of us. It also makes life hell for copy editors at newspapers, not to mention those who will try to read 20th-century books in the 21st century.

The most celebrated name change in Canadian history involved the city of Berlin, Ontario. In the First World War, Berlin, Germany, was, as the capital of our enemy, the site of everything evil. The word became so shameful that Berlin, Ontario, changed its name to Kitchener, in honour of a general and hero of the British Empire, Earl Kitchener of Khartoum. This seemed appropriate at the time; it was what people now call politically correct. But today hardly anyone remembers what Lord Kitchener did. Berlin, on the other hand, will soon become, once again, a major (or perhaps the major) political capital of Europe. Many opportunities for sister-cities promotions were lost by the haste of politicians some 80 years ago. (This is not a suggestion to change it back.)

My extreme conservatism in place names conflicts with my equally passionate wish that the city where I live, Toronto, had place names that meant something, a wish heightened by several recent weeks spent walking the streets of Jerusalem. This desire could be fulfilled only by a radical renaming of Toronto's streets, which would break my 11th commandment. Historically, Torontonians given the task of naming streets have been afflicted by sclerosis of the imagination. In their minds, almost no artists have qualified for the honour of having streets named after them (though an alley just off Bloor Street in Toronto was named for the poet bpNichol a few years ago). Nor, for that matter, did statesmen or scientists deserve such recognition. Instead, the Toronto namers called one major street Bay and another Front; they also created King Street and Queen Street, prudently refraining from stating which king and which queen they were referring to. One day, when their collective imagination totally crashed, they designated a major artery Avenue Road, which was like calling it Street Street.

In Jerusalem I've been staying on Lloyd George Street, named for the First World War prime minister of Britain. Within a few blocks there are streets called Benjamin Disraeli, Emile Zola, Jan Masaryk, and Josiah Wedgwood. In Jerusalem you stare at a street map and history stares back at you. There's a George Eliot Street not far away, probably named for her because she wrote Daniel Deronda, which has been described as "a great Zionist novel" though it was written before the political philosophy known as Zionism was invented.

When it comes to names, there's something wonderfully specific in Jerusalem's civic imagination. The main street near me is Emek Refa'im, which in Hebrew means Valley of the Ghosts. This is where David fought a battle against the Philistines, as described in the Bible. Yes, it was right there, at the end of my block. Jerusalem people don't say "It is believed that...." or "One theory holds that...." They just say where it was and then drop the matter, as if it were a traffic accident that happened last winter. The likelihood that the passing of three millennia created some confusion over precise location, perhaps even misplacing the battle by eight or 10 blocks, apparently occurs to no one. If the local citizens have their way, that's one name that won't be changed.

In the end there's only one argument in favour of changing place names: the befuddlement it creates can produce a certain comedy. Not long after the end of the communist period, a joke circulated in Russia, about an old man answering questions. "Where were you born?" "St. Petersburg." "Where did you study? "Petrograd." "Where did you work?" "Leningrad." "Where are you spending your retirement?" "St. Petersburg."

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