Political correctness, formerly known as placenames changing

Still being a cheeky youngster, it often annoys me when people use old names of things that changed ages ago. You know the sort of thing I mean — people who still say West Germany instead of Germany and the European Cup instead of the Champions League.

Loads of people still say Czechoslovakia, which particularly annoys me because I can actually remember Czechoslovakia existing but I still manage to remember that it is now two separate countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It seems to me as ridiculous as still saying Austria-Hungary, or saying Yugoslavia instead of Croatia.

But as I get older, I guess I’m realising that old habits die hard. The other day I walked in to a room with football on the television and I said, “Is that the Charity Shield?” even though I know it’s now called the Community Shield.

Place names are always changing, and often it is difficult to keep up. I’ve just about got to grips with Peking changing to Beijing. That seems to be official, done and dusted, and everybody accepts it.

But sometimes a place changes its name, yet it doesn’t seem to quite be official. Or worse still, it has two different names, both of which are acceptable! I saw in a recent issue of The Economist, “Timor-Leste, formerly East Timor…”

“Right,” I thought to myself, “I’ll have to remember that from now on. I might even write a blog post about that and everything. Mind you, that would probably be dreadfully dull.”

But has East Timor actually changed its name? Wikipedia redirects Timor-Leste to East Timor. The article introduces the topic as “East Timor, officially the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste…” Later on it says:

The Portuguese name Timor-Leste and the Tetum name Timor Lorosa’e are sometimes used in English.

Well now I just don’t have a clue what this place is called any more. It has an official name but it doesn’t really seem to be widely recognised. And to further confuse matters the native language calls it something different again. The CIA World Factbook doesn’t really help matters.

Not long afterwards, this was posted on the BBC Editors blog:


One caller to the BBC complained that in the coverage of the bombs in India, the name Mumbai was used without an explanation that it was formerly known as Bombay.

There is no BBC rule about using Mumbai, just guidelines. It is up to each individual programme to decide what to say. Most use ‘Mumbai’ and nothing else; a few use ‘Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay’. The thinking is the city has changed its name (some time ago) and Mumbai is now well known to most, if not all, the audience.

The post has an interesting discussion in the comments about the matter. That is, until the inevitable nutjob wades in with a completely unrelated and bonkers point about the Taleban. And then we have the inevitable Biased-BBCers claiming that the BBC referring to ‘Mumbai’ is to do with political correctness (!!). That is what I like to call political correctness gone mad gone mad. As Ally said,

It WAS called Bombay. It is NOW called Mumbai. This is not a question of political correctness. Many Indians may still call the city Bombay, just as I sometimes call a Snickers a Marathon, but it has changed.

I have to say, I think you must have been living in a cave if you had never heard ‘Mumbai’ before last month’s train bombs. But I can kind of sympathise. I never really noticed the Indian place names changing. It was only a few years ago when I saw the placename ‘Kolkata’ for the first time. Nevertheless, it was hardly difficult to work out what city it was referring to.

But who decides when a place name actually changes? Is it technically correct to say ‘Pa-ree’ instead of ‘Pa-riss’ even though it will make you sound like a pretentious bumhole? Is it technically correct to write ‘Köln’ instead of ‘Cologne’ even though it means going to the hassle of finding the ‘ö’ character on the keyboard?

Who decides this? Does the media do it unilaterally? I doubt it. Does the Foreign Office release a list of places that the British government officially recognises as having changed its name? Or is it just down to local bureaucrats? If some bored paper-pusher at Fife Council decided to re-name Kirkcaldy ‘Winky Bum Poo Jizz’, would BBC journalists suddenly find themselves reporting from ouside Winky Bum Poo Jizz Sheriff Court?

When in doubt, I turn to The Economist, famous for its clear writing style.

Use English forms when they are in common use: Cologne [etc]… But follow local practice when a country expressly changes its name, or the names of rivers, towns, etc, within it. Thus… Mumbai not Bombay

Seems fair enough.


  1. And how and when does the Beeb decide to change pronounciations of names? Niger used to be as in Nigel only without the ‘l’. The last drought out there and it became nee-jair. Why? How? Why is Kenya ‘Keeenya’ again? Why do I even notice?

  2. Mumbai, and it should always have been Mumbai until the British came along. Also I hate how westerners pronounce Delhi. It’s pronounce Dil-lhi.

    Thank you 😉

  3. Remember…

    It’s Istanbul, not Constantinople…

    I’m not going to be able to get the song out of my head for the rest of the day now…

  4. Sorry Steve Hill, but it never was “Mumbai before the British came along”. The name Bombay derives from the Portuguese for ‘good bay’ (they were there before us) and the British used that name. It was never called Mumbai until now, as basically the city didn’t exist in it’s modern form until the British built it.

    Incidentally, they also allowed back in the previously banished locals and also allowed them to rebuild their temples etc.

    The use of ‘Mumbai’ is being promoted by a (minority) group to score a few political points.

    End of rant.

  5. Oh, so it was the British was it that gave Bombay its Portugeuse name then?( Comment below ) As I understand it locally the name has been written in Latin script as Bombay (beautiful bay?) but has for a long time been written in whatever the local script is, as Mumbai, which will now presumably be the Latin script spelling. Can I assume that the film industry willl now be known as Mollywood?