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It's a funny old world

We made the mistake over the weekend to referring in an article on the Baltimore Marathon to "the Ukraine," and we promptly got an irate note.

Ukrainians find the usage offensive. It was "the Ukraine" when it was a region, a part of Russia or the Soviet Union. It is an independent nation now, and its name does not take the definite article. (At least we didn’t commit the gaffe of using the old nickname, "Little Russia.")

It may also take us some time to accustom ourselves to the relatively new style of the names of major Indian cities. Bombay is now Mumbai, Madras is Chennai and Calcutta is Kolkata. India dislikes vestiges of British colonial nomenclature, and American journalism is slowly going along.

We also went along when Upper Volta became Burkina Faso (retaining the irresistible name of its capital, Ougadougou), though there has been some resistance to the Burmese junta’s insistence on Myanmar, though Seinfeld didn’t balk at it when it sent J. Peterman there.

But what to call a place doesn’t depend entirely on the local preference. As you may remember from the post on Feb. 9, "Italian Englished," we stuck with Turin over Torino during the Olympics, on the ground that there are many names of cities and nations for which English equivalents are well established. Not having received any irate notes from outraged Italo-Americans, we remain comfortable with that decision.

Some names just stick stubbornly, as we see locally in the refusal of residents of Pigtown to be gentrified into "Washington Village." They’ll accept the new name when pigs fly.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:47 PM | | Comments (3)


Apropos of this, there are two preposition in Russian and Ukrainian (as in other Slavic languages) that roughly correspond to English's "in" and "on", but in some cases the usage isn't parallel. One of those cases is that some place names take the "on" equivalent, rather than the "in", and in virtually every case of this, there's a "the" used in English: the Crimea, for instance. Ukraine takes the "on" preposition in Russian, and used to in Ukrainian, but now, post-independence, Ukrainians are shifting to saying "in". A Google search gave 402,000 hits on "na Ukrayini" (the 'on' or 'in the' equivalent) but 7,980,000 hits on "v Ukrayini" (the "in" equivalent). So you're in good company having trouble remembering to change your usage.

The 2006 edition of the AP Stylebook recommends Myanmar. It's probably still wise to mention in stories about that place that it is also known as Burma.

This is one near to my heart, having written a memo on it a few years ago after the managing editor wanted to know why the wire desk was using Myanmar when the BBC used Burma.

If my Torinese husband read the Baltimore Sun, trust me, you would have received an irate note re: your decision to use Turin during the Olympics.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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