Day 314: A Rose By Any Other Name

10.11.09:

My word, I’ve awoken in Australia! How’d THAT happen? Oh hang on, no – it’s just Madagascar doing a damn fine impression of my crimson-tinctured second home. So today, the entire day was spent on the road heading towards Diego Suarez. Diego’s real name is Antsiranana, following in the Madagascan tradition of using as many vowels as humanly possible. The government changed the name thirty-four years ago because they wanted something that sounded more Malagasy, but it hasn’t stuck. Everyone – and I mean everyone – still calls it Diego. Hell, it’s a good name and who am I to argue with a bon mot?

A lesson, one would imagine, for the likes of Bombay, who foolishly changed it’s name to Mumbai fifteen years ago. I find the whole concept of changing the names of places fascinating and bewildering, I mean, why bother? In the case of Bombay, they have taken an internationally recognised trademark and re-branded it into something quite obscure and nowhere near as catchy. It’s a bit like Coca-Cola changing its name to ‘Barry’. The actual sound of the word Bombay is great – two nice big booming ‘b’s to get your lips around, forming a pleasant and decisive sound along the lines of bombastic – a great adjective to describe the place – almost as good as Bangkok (the only onomatopoeic city in the world). Mumbai unfortunately is tantalisingly close to mumble, and when spoken aloud often comes out like that.

While the name changes of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai) are just as pointless, I actually find the name Mumbai slightly offensive. ‘Bombay’ was a corruption of the Portuguese for ‘good bay’, fairly innocuous you would think and not something that was causing widespread offence or keeping people awake at night.

The name Mumbai was suggested by Salman Rushie in his excellent book Midnight’s Children (which I implore you to read) back in 1980, and stems from the name of the local god of the fishermen. Hindu god, that is. Not Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian or any of the other plethora of religions to be found in that good city. And herein likes the rub: the decision to change the name was not made in the interests of the city or it’s citizens – it was made in the interests of politicians. Particularly irksome right-wing politicians at that. The ultra-Hinduist party, the BJP (the Indian equivalent of the BNP), was riding high in the 1990s and sought to stamp it’s mark on the world map – and what better way to do it than to change the name of India’s most famous city? From a Boom to a Mumble. Great.

And we see this same process in effect all over the world – Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City, Peking/Beijing, Burma/Myanmar… pointless name changing seems to be a facet of a particular brand of wingnut politician – look at Zaire – the Democratic Republic of Congo as it was formally and now once again called. My favourite case is that of St. Petersburg sounding ‘too German’ and being changed to Petrograd, then becoming Leningrad and then, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, reverting to St. Petersburg again. Madness.

At least it keeps these pesky cartographers on their toes.

I’d argue there’s a case for changing the name of somewhere called Hitlerville or Pol Pot City, but in somewhere like Durban, which is currently undergoing a systematic re-naming of pretty much every street in the city, I just don’t get it. Attempting to obfuscate our history by using geographic nomenclature is a waste of time and money. So what if St. Petersburg sounds German? So what if Bombay is Portuguese and Chester-le-Street sounds ever so slightly French? Is the American city of brotherly love (Philadelphia) making the sisters jealous?

Let’s face it, ‘Marathon’ stopped being cool the minute they changed the name to ‘Snickers’. Does anyone remember when Coco-Pops tried become the jarring Choco-Krispies? Or The Royal Mail becoming Consignia for all of five seconds? Or Coca-Cola changing it’s recipe in the 1980s… WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? This is not rocket science, it ain’t alchemy; it’s just one simple rule: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

There was a suggestion made a few years back that some of the streets of my home town of Liverpool should be changed as many are named after slave traders – that was until a wily chap pointed out that Mr. Penny was indeed a slave trader and therefore, we would have to lose the name of our most famous street – Penny Lane.

Having said all that, I do think that some places in the UK are ‘broke’ and therefore ripe for a re-brand. Hull, Grimsby, Skegness, Bognor Regis, Scunthorpe to name a few – purely for shallow, aesthetic reasons I assure you. But the new names would have to improve on the original (wouldn’t be too difficult) and be not completely idiotic. I’d suggest Kingston (it’s true name anyhoo), Luxby, Mariness, Belle Regis and Mingetown.

There are places in the world that I want to visit just because I love the name: Ouagadougou (pronounced Wagadoogoo), Timbuktu, Galapagos, Azerbaijan, Truth or Consequences, Mount Misery and Lake Disappointment. I love that a mountain range in New Zealand is called The Remarkables. Although I doubt I’ll ever be making a beeline for the town of ‘Shit’ in Iran any time soon. Look it up on Google Earth!

There is a good way of seeing if your shiny new name is an improvement – are people still using the old name years later? Istanbul, New York and Burkina Faso were accepted by the population and I don’t think you’ll see too many buses in Turkey departing for Constantinople these days. I also didn’t meet a single person in West Africa who used the name Upper Volta for Burkina Faso, a name changed ten years after Diego’s.

In the case of Antsiranana, if the name ain’t stuck after all these years, I think it’s time to give up the ghost. Same goes for Mumbai, Ho Chi Minh City and Myanmar. I could see them all reverting to their original names in the manner of St. Petersburg or the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although why Ghana elected to ditch the delightfully tourist-baiting name of The Gold Coast I’ll never know.

You can tell politicians don’t work in advertising.

Anyways… I’ve developed a cold whilst on the old DAL Madagascar (the air conditioning I wager) so my journey today to Diego was spent blowing my nose in the most outrageous of fashions and then attempting to dispose of the evidence in an environmentally friendly way. It’s the first cold that I’ve had since I started The Odyssey Expedition, and I don’t like it sir, no I don’t like it at all.

The drive north wasn’t quite as spectacular as the journey from Antananarivo to Tamatave, but it still proved a feast for the eyes. Something that I’ve noticed is that as well as having a distinctive Malagasy style of architecture, each area has it’s own regional take on it. More good marks for the fourth largest island in the world.

I arrived in Diego just after 9pm. The place was deader than Dillinger. I checked into the Belle Vue hotel (and indeed it did have a good view) slammed some Ariary down on the desk and bought myself a room for the night.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Tom

    Theres a famous shopping street in Tokyo Hi-lariously called “Takeshita street”

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