Friday, December 10, 2004

What's in a Name ?

El Jefe’s subject in this post is names. Specifically, the names of cities, mostly in Europe. Winston Churchill is supposed to have said that woe attends those who rename their cities, and El Jefe is definitely in agreement with Sir Winston on this point. If El Jefe’s American readers doubt their good fortune in living on this continent, they should find an old atlas and consider all the name changes of cities and places between say, 1918 and the present. There is a city in Poland called Wroclaw that used to be in Germany, where it was called Breslau. Just the difference of a word and a dotted line on a map, but representing endless misery and oceans of blood.

In any event, El Jefe must warn his readers that from time to time he is wont to use what some would call archaic proper names for cities and rivers, generally in Europe, but in other places too. All these names have stories of their own.

Sometimes, El Jefe’s somewhat reactionary tendencies even make him a prophet. For example, El Jefe, his whole life, always disdained referring to that beautiful city in Russia, on the Neva River, by the name it bore during Soviet days. To El Jefe this city was always St. Petersburg, and one day God smiled, and the name of the hateful butcher, along with the odious regime he built and its bloody rag, came down, and St Petersburg finally got its name back for real. Similarly, El Jefe could never bring himself to besmirch the cities of Tver, Simbirsk, Yekaterinburg and other places with their Soviet-era, Bolshevik big-shot names, which often, to El Jefe appeared to positively reek of blood. Thankfully, those names have mostly gone away too, with exceptions (mostly East Prussian cities such as poor Königsberg, still called Kalningrad).

Again, El Jefe is not entirely consistent – he tends to think of Volgograd as Stalingrad, and not Tsaritsyn, because of the World War II battle there. To El Jefe, that name evokes not murderer Stalin, but the brave Soviet soldiers who died keeping it out of the hands of the beastly Nazis.

El Jefe’s reasons are not always consistent, or even logical. Sometimes it’s just plain mule-headedness. El Jefe likes Poles and Poland….but, (probably thanks to his interest in Napoleonic and German military history) he reflexively still thinks of Breslau (not Wroclaw), Posen (not Poznan), Bromberg (not Bydgoszcz), Allenstein, (not Olstyn), Oppeln (not Opole), etc.

As an aside, re-naming was not only a bad habit of extreme left-wing regimes, or new ethnic masters, but a staple of some extreme right-wing regimes also. The Nazis were among the worst offenders – among other things renaming Lodz, Poland “Litzmannstadt,” and Gdynia (now part of Gdansk, Poland) – “Gotenhafen” rather than its older German name of Gdingen. Thankfully, none of that lasted.

The Germans did a little name restoring a few years ago when the Wall came down, again moving things back El Jefe’s way, and getting rid of the names of Communist icons and luminaries. Chemnitz is no longer sullied with the title “Karl-Marx-Stadt” and Guben likewise was able to give a well-deserved ditching to “Wilhelm-Pieck-Stadt.” Speaking of commies, El Jefe hopes he lives long enough to see Saigon be Saigon again.

And yes, El Jefe, disagrees with the song on this subject and still thinks of Istambul as Constantinople.

1 comment:

Dawn said...

Had to check out El Jefe's blog and I find it fascinating. Obviously the big boss is a fan of history -- very nice! For the record, let it be known that Kentucky is/was obviously an admirer at one time or another of our European cousins. We have cities named for far too many European cities. In this state alone there is a Rome, Paris, London, Glasgow, and of course, our very own Louisville is named for King Louis (the XIV, I believe?). Now, given the well-known disdain of the French for our country, you couldn't PAY a Kentuckian to take home a bottle of French wine though. :-p