Who made the decision that Peking should be called Beijing and that Bombay should be Mumbai? Will we eventually see Beijing duck on a menu, or Mumbai gin in the liquor store? I’m assuming someone determined these were closer English-spelled equivalents of the native names, but it seemed like this was accepted all at once. Did China and India lobby for spelling corrections?
— John Davis from Clairemont, Shelton, WA
What’s the real name of that big body of water south of eastern Cali — Sea of Cortez or Gulf of California? It’s called different things on different maps.
— Anonymo, San Diego
Ya missed one, Anonymo. When that devil Hernán Cortez rumbled through the area, the water was already known as the Vermillion Sea, maybe from the red algae blooms or perhaps from the area’s abundance of beetles that when squashed produced cochinil, a red dye still used today in foods and fabric. Spanish maps proclaimed the place the Sea of their hero Cortez, and that’s the name you’ll find now on Spanish-language maps and on the lips of the local Mexicans. When English speakers gained an interest in the area, they dubbed the place the Gulf of California, since the state of Baja is actually the state of Baja California; Baja Sur is Baja California Sur; and we now live in what was then Alta California. To heck with Cortez, we said, it’s the Gulf of California. Both names are accepted, just in different worlds.
So much for the easy stuff. Off we go to Mumbai, which has had that name since the Middle Ages in honor of the city’s patron goddess, Mumbadevi. The name persisted through centuries of subjugation by hordes of Indian and Mid-eastern cultural groups. The history reads like you’re being attacked by a squadron of wasps. Mind-numbing. Anyway, come the Portuguese in the 16th Century, who set about Portuguese-ing up the place, including changing names. The real story is still argued, but beleaguered old Mumbai seems to have been renamed “beautiful bay” in Portuguese, finally becoming “Bombaim.” Then, out with the Portuguese, in with the British. Not a far leap from Bombain to Bombay during the Raj. When the Brits finally left in 1947, India set about ridding themselves of all place names inflicted on them by occupiers. Bombay is just one of dozens of renamed cities, with many more to come. In fact, the locals never stopped calling the city Mumbai, no matter who was marching through.
It’s one thing for India to change back to the old name, it’s something else to get non-Indian cooperation. The country presented its case to the International Organization for Standardization, an international organization that sets standards, natch. For practically everything. One thing is place names. In 1996 the ISO standard for Bombay became our old friend Mumbai. The news world took note and dumped Bombay, and we all noticed. (The organization’s international standard abbreviation for their name is ISO, not IOS. Don’t argue with them.)
Last stop, Beijing. And here we have no complicated histories, just a complicated writing system. And as with India, there was no real name change, just a spelling change that made it seem like a name change. With one minor break, Peking/Beijing has been the political seat of China. And until 1949, Westerners had spelled the city’s name Peking, a transliteration from the Chinese characters, hoping to reflect the Chinese pronunciation. When China became the People’s Republic, much changed, including the system of rules China used to translate proper names into Western form. They chose a system called Pinyin, In Pinyin, Peking became Beijing. For about 40 years the West ignored China’s change until political relations began to normalize and the ISO set Pinyin as the standard, then Peking was out, Beijing was in.
The U.S. has its own strange standards group, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. It seems to be part military-spooky, part National Geographic. It apparently maintains, among other things, a database of official U.S. spellings and names for geographical sites. I’m not sure they’re involved in the big Denali thing, in which Alaska unilaterally changed Mt. McKinley to Denali Peak, an original reference. The U.S. government is having none of it, apparently. They were glad to rename the national park around the mountain Denali National Park, but they apparently have no interest in changing the name of the mountain, even though the park was originally named for the peak. To tell the truth, Denali long ago was arbitrarily renamed Mt. McKinley by some explorer/prospector who happened on the place and decided to name it after his favorite American president. Alaska finally got miffed enough to change it back, but the feds seem determined to show them who’s boss.