What’s in a Name?
By Patrick F. Cannon
Some years ago, I was driving from Munich to Vienna. The day was fine and the road splendid. After traveling for some time, I thought I should soon see a sign heralding my imminent arrival. Nothing of the kind. Thinking perhaps that I had somehow gone astray, I pulled into a rest stop and sought information from the Information kiosk. I explained my dilemma to the attendant, who laughed heartily, as Austrians often do. When he caught his breath, he told me that Vienna was actually Wien in German. Why then do English speakers call it Vienna I asked? Warming to the subject, he said that the Italians called the city Vienna and that since the English seemed to prefer the Italians to the Austrians, they had taken to using the Italian word.
I was on the point of asking why the Italians thought it necessary to come up with their own name, but decided I might never actually get to Wien, so I decided to leave well enough alone. I heartily enjoyed my visit to Wien, but it has caused me problems ever since. When extolling the virtues of Wien to my friends, I am often greeted with blank stares. Wien? Never heard of it! After patiently explaining that it’s often called Vienna by English speakers, I often have the feeling that they think that perhaps I had too much wine in Wien.
What to call things is a serious problem for travelers. The French call London “Londre”, the Italians “Londini.” On the other hand, the English spell Paris just like the French do, although they pronounce it with an “iss” instead of an “eee.” A Spaniard thinks he’s going to Nueva York instead of New York, but generally manages to get there anyway. One often wonders, of course, why there’s no Spanish word for “York.” Nueva Yorka has a music that Nueva York lacks.
Germany also presents problems. If you go there, you’ll discover that the locals call it Deutschland, which must mean “land of the Dutch.” I had always supposed that the Dutch lived in Holland, but perhaps I’m mistaken. It may just be that the Germans grabbed the name first, leaving the Dutch to settle for Holland, which must be a made up word. By the way, the French call Germany, Allemane, which makes no sense to anyone.
What one should name people is also a problem. Italians persist in calling Julius Caesar “Giulio Cesare.” But the English seem perfectly content to leave Benito Mussolini as it is instead of changing it to “Benny Muscles.” I wondered if the Italians call Alfred the Great “Alfredo il Magnifico,” but didn’t bother to check.
To give another illustration, we call the saint who could charm the birds out of the trees, Francis. The Italians call him Santa Francesco and the Spanish San Fernando. You would think that we would call the famous valley in California the Saint Francis Valley instead of the San Fernando Valley, but we don’t.
And I’m sure many of your friends have told you that “I’m off to England for a vacation.” But aren’t they really going to the United Kingdom, or is it really Great Britain? If you’re planning a trip to Ireland, is it the Republic of Ireland, or Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, but not Great Britain?
Of course, I haven’t even gotten to place names in the Orient. For these and other distant climes, let me refer to the standard reference work: The Thomas Cook and Company Guide to Curious Foreign Place Names, From Aachen to Zanzibar. Any respectable bookseller should be able to hunt down a copy. It may explain to you why the city is called Beijing and the duck, Peking.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon