What’s in a name? When it comes to geographical place names, quite a lot actually, as anyone who’s found themselves stuck talking to someone who insists on telling you about their fabulous holiday to Ceylon or Siam, will tell you. Naming a country or a city is a powerful act, and an opportunity to impose your ideology – which is why so many former colonies have been keen to shake off their colonial place names.
Take the central square in Tripoli, the focal point for Libya’s 2011 revolution. Under Italian rule it was Rome Square, but after Muammar Gaddafi took power in 1969 it became Green Square – as the colour green was seen to represent his “Al Fatah” revolution. When Gaddafi fell, it became Martyrs Square, to commemorate the protesters who lost their lives there. Ask a taxi driver now to take you to Green Square, and you get a very funny look.
Or think of how St Petersburg became Leningrad, and then reverted to St Petersburg again, or Volgograd was briefly Stalingrad. Or look at India, where major cities have been renamed to reflect local nationalist sentiments. Bombay became Mumbai in 1995, Madras became Chennai in 1996 and Calcutta became Kolkata in 2001.
It’s not always obvious what name you should use for a country – do you go for Burma or Myanmar? The country’s pro-democracy movement prefer Burma, because they reject the authority of the military junta that renamed it in 1989.
And now Kazakhstan wants to change its name. According to The Economist, the vast and oil rich central Asian country is seeking to distance itself from its less well-off neighbours like Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and avoid being lumped with volatile “stans” like Pakistan and Afghanistan. President Nazerbayev has suggested it become “Kazakh Yeli” (land of the Kazakhs) or Kazakhiya instead. So far his suggestion hasn’t gained much popularity.
It’s unlikely the name change will do much to change international perception of Kazakhstan – in fact it sounds a little bit like a storyline lifted straight from the BBC comedy Ambassadors – but it will give sub-editors and diplomats something to puzzle over.