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H.D.S. Greenway

Playing the name game

HUGE DEMONSTRATIONS, and the subsequent crackdown by the authorities, have brought Burma barging back into Western consciousness. But what to call it?

In 1989 the Burmese military junta renamed the country Myanmar. The New York Times and the Washington Post dutifully call it Myanmar, but often have a reference somewhere in the story saying "formerly Burma." The former capital and biggest city will be often be referred to as "Yangon, formerly Rangoon," but sometimes just "Yangon."

The Globe, owned by the New York Times Co., calls the city "Rangoon" and the country "Burma," with maybe a reference in the story saying the junta renamed the country Myanmar.

The Wall Street Journal recently referred to "Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city," without bothering readers with the former names. But they allowed their sources leeway. "They want to see Burma remain stable," a source was quoted as saying in the same story without any newspaper guidance to the reader that Burma and Myanmar are one and the same.

The Economist barreled ahead with Myanmar in its leader last week, without references to past names, but used the word Burma on its cover. The Financial Times recently succumbed to the same schizophrenia. Last week, it resolutely referred to Burma and Rangoon throughout a story, but the photo caption referred to "Yangon, Burma."

Everyone seems to use "Burmese" as an adjective, even when they are referring to Myanmar. "Myanmarian" hasn't made it.

Jim Lehrer of public television's News Hour gives you a choice. "Myanmar or Burma," but he recently took the trouble to explain that these names have become freighted with political meaning. Myanmar is associated with the military dictatorship, while Burma is preferred by the democratic opposition.

President Bush used Burma in his United Nations speech - correctly in my view - but I am sure the Burmese junta thought it was the equivalent of his referring to the "Democrat Party."

The New York Times style can be traced to Joseph Lelyveld, foreign editor in 1989, and later executive editor, who was "the only person on the premises who had ever lived in Burma," he says, having been a Fulbright student there.

His general philosophy was, and is, that "it is not our business what a country wants to call itself." Also, he didn't want to repeat the muddle in many newsrooms that followed China's change from Peking to Beijing. He had talked to a respected Burmese friend who told him that Myanmar was an older name for Burma, and had legitimacy.

"Now Myanmar is associated with those dreadful people," Lelyveld says today. "Basically, I was too fast off the mark." He thinks that, in hindsight, it would have been better to wait a while to see how things settled down.

Some newspapers were quick to accept the Khmer Rouge change of Cambodia to "Kampuchea." Others held back, thinking that the regime could not last, and that the name Cambodia would be reinstated. It was.

There is nothing new about name changes. European towns have regularly changed names when borders changed. Upper Volta changed its name to Burkina Faso in 1984, wags say to move higher up the alphabet. St. Petersburg became Petrograd in World War I, then Leningrad under the Communists. Now it is St. Petersburg again.

India changed Bombay to Mumbai, even though Bombay came from the Portuguese and never was Mumbai. Venerable old Madras is now called Chennai, and Calcutta has been renamed Kolkata. The last time I was there, however, the Royal Calcutta Golf Club was resisting a name change.

The yacht club in Hong Kong found a compromise when the British colony reverted back to China 10 years ago. In English it is still the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, but in Chinese it is the Hong Kong Yacht Club.

I respect a country's decision to rename things, but my curmudgeonly view is that it needn't be imposed on the English language. We never had to write CCCP instead of USSR when the Soviet Union still existed. Germany calls itself Deutschland, but doesn't insist that English speakers follow suit. The Italians aren't irritated because we say Florence instead of Firenze. The Belgians don't bridle when we write Brussels instead of Bruxelles.

As for Myanmar, I have no doubt that both it and the name Yangon will one day fit in the same trash can alongside Leningrad and Kampuchea.

Speaking of Belgians, I erroneously wrote of a Protestant north last week. Catholics outnumber Protestants in Flander.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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