Skip to main content

That name sounds funny - I'll change it

For hundreds of years it has been the norm to give names a tweak if they sounded odd in the language being used - particular names of people and places. So for a long time, when Latin was the go-to language of Europe, it was the norm to Latinise people's names. We now find a lot of these fiddly and they have been discarded, but some still remain - Jesus and Copernicus, to name but two.

Medieval scholars also struggled with Arabic names, which became essentials when Europe was regaining its interest in science, largely spurred on by the writings of Arabic scientists and their translations of Greek books. So, for instance, Abū l-Walīd Muḥammad Ibn ʾAḥmad Ibn Rušd, or Ibn Rušd for short (whose name inspired Salman Rushdie's surname) somehow became Averroës, while Abu Mūsā Jābir ibn Hayyān became Gerber.

However, the most lasting and interestingly nuanced is our current approach to place names. Traditionally we gave a name to a place, and that was its English name, even if its 'real' name subsequently changed. But now we try harder to keep up... except where we don't. So we have gone along with the change from Ceylon to Sri Lanka, and we've even tried to keep up with as arbitrary a change as an update of transliteration from some languages that don't use the same characters as us. So, for instance, Peking has become Beijing and Mao Tse Tung turns into Mao Zedong. Yet somehow  what probably should be transliterated Moskva stubbornly remains Moscow.

In Europe, we are impressively confused over what to do. Most French places we seem to cope with, but we can't bring ourselves to say Paris the way we should. In Germany, Köln is still usually Cologne, and in Italy we shun Roma (it's not difficult, guys), Firenze and Venezia for Rome, Florence and Venice.

However, we are most confused of all when it comes to Wales. Here, we simply can't make our minds up, so end up with dual names for many places, causing strife, confusion and I'm sure road accidents as people have to cope with twice the amount of words, working out which to apply. Personally I love the Welsh names, and I'd rather we simply dropped the anglicised versions. Who wouldn't prefer Y Trallwng to Welshpool? Once you learn the basics of Welsh pronunciation (and I'm the first to admit, mine is rudimentary as it's mostly picked up from non-Welsh speakers) there's far more fun to be had with Caerdydd than Cardiff. What I wish, though, is that people would use one or the other. It really irritates me, for instance, when people use the Welsh pronunciation of, say, Aberystwyth (as happened when they were on University Challenge), but don't then go on to use Welsh place names for towns that have dual designation.

So, frankly, names are a mess. We've gradually moved away from Latinisation and Anglicisation, but only to a point. I know we don't have a body that sorts out English, it just sort of evolves. But I wish that evolution could get a move on and head in one direction or the other, rather than taking its current drunkard's walk.

(Next week, we drag astronomers, kicking and screaming into using SI units.)


Popular posts from this blog

Why I hate opera

If I'm honest, the title of this post is an exaggeration to make a point. I don't really hate opera. There are a couple of operas - notably Monteverdi's Incoranazione di Poppea and Purcell's Dido & Aeneas - that I quite like. But what I do find truly sickening is the reverence with which opera is treated, as if it were some particularly great art form. Nowhere was this more obvious than in ITV's recent gut-wrenchingly awful series Pop Star to Opera Star , where the likes of Alan Tichmarsh treated the real opera singers as if they were fragile pieces on Antiques Roadshow, and the music as if it were a gift of the gods. In my opinion - and I know not everyone agrees - opera is: Mediocre music Melodramatic plots Amateurishly hammy acting A forced and unpleasant singing style Ridiculously over-supported by public funds I won't even bother to go into any detail on the plots and the acting - this is just self-evident. But the other aspects need some ex

Is 5x3 the same as 3x5?

The Internet has gone mildly bonkers over a child in America who was marked down in a test because when asked to work out 5x3 by repeated addition he/she used 5+5+5 instead of 3+3+3+3+3. Those who support the teacher say that 5x3 means 'five lots of 3' where the complainants say that 'times' is commutative (reversible) so the distinction is meaningless as 5x3 and 3x5 are indistinguishable. It's certainly true that not all mathematical operations are commutative. I think we are all comfortable that 5-3 is not the same as 3-5.  However. This not true of multiplication (of numbers). And so if there is to be any distinction, it has to be in the use of English to interpret the 'x' sign. Unfortunately, even here there is no logical way of coming up with a definitive answer. I suspect most primary school teachers would expands 'times' as 'lots of' as mentioned above. So we get 5 x 3 as '5 lots of 3'. Unfortunately that only wor

Which idiot came up with percentage-based gradient signs

Rant warning: the contents of this post could sound like something produced by UKIP. I wish to make it clear that I do not in any way support or endorse that political party. In fact it gives me the creeps. Once upon a time, the signs for a steep hill on British roads displayed the gradient in a simple, easy-to-understand form. If the hill went up, say, one yard for every three yards forward it said '1 in 3'. Then some bureaucrat came along and decided that it would be a good idea to state the slope as a percentage. So now the sign for (say) a 1 in 10 slope says 10% (I think). That 'I think' is because the percentage-based slope is so unnatural. There are two ways we conventionally measure slopes. Either on X/Y coordiates (as in 1 in 4) or using degrees - say at a 15° angle. We don't measure them in percentages. It's easy to visualize a 1 in 3 slope, or a 30 degree angle. Much less obvious what a 33.333 recurring percent slope is. And what's a 100% slope