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Name changes

Steve Titherington | 10:39 UK time, Tuesday, 2 October 2007

It might seem tempting to go along with the name change from Burma to Myanmar instigated by the generals back in 1989, given the colonial associations with "Burma" - however the name change has been resisted by many who do not accept the legitimacy of the of current regime.

World Service logoRangoon also became Yangon; we have stayed with Rangoon. There were also other name changes within Burma which were themselves opposed by people within Burma.

There's an interesting piece online on this.

Of course there have been many other name changes especially within Asia where the BBC and the international community have gone with the decision made by a particular country… eg Mumbai but not (yet) Kolkata. But in India there has been debate and discussion which the BBC has reported and many times been part of. There has been no similar dialogue within Burma.

Not all name changes have stuck. Cambodia became Kampuchea under the Khmer Rouge in 1975. It is now of course back to being Cambodia. I am told the BBC stayed with Cambodia throughout.

Soldiers blocking a road in Rangoon, BurmaThe fact that many news organisations and official bodies - although by no means all - have started using "Myanmar" does mean that we need to also acknowledge that usage in many of our stories and links. So you might hear Burma and Myanmar in a story or cue but never Myanmar alone.

To change the name now would itself be seen as making a statement about the legitimacy of one side. We have not supported one side by leaving the name as "Burma", but have simply let the status quo remain.

I think the key point in the discussions here at the BBC World Service is that we change a name when it is a settled and lasting change - Burkina Faso for instance (formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta). And only in those circumstances. Even after all this time Burma is not a settled issue - is it?


  • 1.
  • At 12:26 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • John wrote:

You say that the issue is whether the name change is '...settled and lasting change.' There does seem some inconsistency in that. The Burma/Myanmar change is now 18 years old. As a contrast, when Mugabe changed Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, I recall that the BBC fell in with the change instantly. A more consistent explanation is that you go along with the name change when you support the regime and the reasons for the change.

  • 2.
  • At 12:49 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • James wrote:

If a company is bought in an aggresive and unpopular takeover, thousands of people lose their jobs etc - do you stick to the original name? Or go with the new official corporate name as listed on the stock exchange/companies house?
Are there parallels here? Is there a "register" of officially accepted country names? And should you use the new official name of a country/company/chocolate bar even if the takeover/name-change is unpopular?
Just asking - interested in your take from a style point of view.

  • 3.
  • At 12:50 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • Andrew Platt wrote:

Is it really necessary to keep changing place names? Everyone knows where Bombay is, but it took me some time to realise that Mumbai was actually the same place. We often use a name in English that differs from that used in the local language, for example we English know the Welsh town "Yr Wyddgrug" as Mold, and "Abertawe" as Swansea. The precedent is set. Let the British continue to use Bombay and Ayres Rock, and let the Indians, Aboriginals or whoever use whatever names they please. Or is it, as I suspect, all to do with political correctness?

  • 4.
  • At 01:07 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

What's in a name? Once upon a time there was a country called England. Some said there would always be an England but your rarely ever hear that country mentioned anymore. Now it's known as Britain but even that may change and the new name may eventually be Euroland, a generic demographically homogenized endless gray landscape characterized by sameness and mediocrity and ruled by a nameless faceless bureaucracy created because it became obvious after a couple of thousand years that was the only way its inhabitants could stop killing each other.

The British Broadcasting Corporation was for the longest time known simply as BBC, then "The Beeb." On its present course, that name could one day in the not too distant future be replaced too. Perhaps it will be called BNN or Box News or maybe even MSBBC and be publicly traded on the NYSE or NASDAQ. Its symbol could be BNEWS.

  • 5.
  • At 01:40 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • JulianR wrote:

There is more than a touch of inconsistency here. Why is it that news reporters are always expected to change the name of places in non-European non-white countries simply because, say, India chooses to change the name of Bombay to Mumbai, or China calls its capital city Bejing rather than Peking.

Surely, the city is still called Bombay in English.

To be consistent, all European cities and countries ought also be called by their proper names too - Deutschland rather than Germany; Italia rather than Italy, Den Haag rather than The Hague.

  • 6.
  • At 01:47 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • James S wrote:

Why bother changing the names at all? Surely the name stays the same in English or are we soon going to have to use local languages for all country / city names?

At what point does it stop? Should we use local dialects? Accents? Why should we say Mumbai but not "Liverpooool"?

Do we expect the French to call our capital London rather than Londres?

Very well written article Steve, thanks.

Maybe we should still be referring to London as Londinium...

Best wishes

  • 8.
  • At 02:54 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • Alison wrote:

And would you say that the change to Mumbai has been settled when most people who actually live there refuse to use that name and call it Bombay? Why use this but not Kolkata and do the BBC use Chennai ot Madras?

  • 9.
  • At 04:34 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • Bedd Gelert wrote:

Andrew Platt - What typical anglocentric nonsense !! Let the little people use whatever names they like !! After all, we are only Indian / Aboriginal / Welsh after all..

Give me strength... Next you will be suggesting that we all change to only speak English to make live convenient for those too lazy to speak languages other than their own, and resort to lazy arguments such as 'it's political correctness'. Dearie, dearie me..

  • 10.
  • At 07:22 PM on 02 Oct 2007,
  • James Shepherd wrote:

The BBC did not always stick with Cambodia. I'm 31 now and I distinctly recall Blue Peter running an appeal for 'Kampuchea'. Searching Google brings back a YouTube clip of Margaret Thatcher being interviewed on the programme in 1988. Indeed, I had no idea for years after that the name of the country was in fact Cambodia having grown up with this memory.

Your argument would be great except it's basic tenant (that the country has been Myanmar for 18 years) is wrong.

Perhaps you might like to read this Wikipedia article:

As it points out, the written form of the countries name, basically Mranma, dates back to 1190.

Over time, the Y sound has been added.

When the military looked at the name in 1989, what they were talking about was the ENGLISH form of the name. The Burmese name had always been Myanmar.

So avoiding the use of Myanmar makes little sense, since Burmese people would use that in their own language.

As a final note, the UN officially call the country Myanmar on their own website.

Personally I call it Burma, but then my mother's family were all born there in the 1920s. But Burmese friends call me old fashioned.

  • 12.
  • At 02:22 AM on 03 Oct 2007,
  • Steven Martin wrote:

I think it's right that the BBC has resisted the name change to Myanmar just because it is the preferred term of the military Junta. It's a shame that the BBC has not resisted other name changes though.

For example, the Mercenary industry (in collaboration with various governments) has manged to persuade the media to use the term "Private Military Contractor" instead of mercenary. This name change has been very important in enabling these companies to avoid public opposition and gain important contracts in places like Iraq.

The problem is that under the Geneva Conventions there is no such thing as a "Private Military Contractor". There are soldiers, civilians and mercenaries. Any of these contractors being captured by an enemy force would quite rightly be regarded as mercenaries.

They have tried to argue that since they are defending things (like US Generals) they are not mercenaries, but the Geneva Conventions give no special status to mercenaries who are acting in a defensive capacity any more that they give special status to soldiers acting in a defensive capacity.

Is there an official policy of avoiding the term "Mercenary" at the BBC?

  • 13.
  • At 04:31 AM on 03 Oct 2007,
  • John wrote:

It seems rather bizarre to accept name changes just because. It is wholly inconstant to accept some changes but not others.

It is especially egregious in the case of Mumbai vs. Bombay. The place name in English is still Bombay. You do not call Germany "Deutschland" or Spain "España".

  • 14.
  • At 01:57 PM on 03 Oct 2007,
  • Paul wrote:

Blue Peter in country name change shock...Cambodia was Kampuchea for the 1986 Blue Peter Appeal

  • 15.
  • At 04:24 PM on 03 Oct 2007,
  • john cb wrote:

BBC News never used the name Kampuchea, which was the Pol Pot name nor the Khmer Republic which IIRC was the Lom Nol name. Many countries are happy for traditional names to continue in English despite huge differences with the native name or names. The country names India, Egypt and China are obvious examples. The point about Burma surely is that many people hearing a story about it will put meaning to the name. Myanmar for most people is meaningless.

  • 16.
  • At 07:42 PM on 03 Oct 2007,
  • John W wrote:

I understand the reasons given by the BBC for choosing to stick with 'Burma' rather than the official name of 'Myanmar'. But the BBC is not isolated from the world, and if some listeners didn't realize Mumbai was the same place as Bombay, then the BBC should refer to 'Burma also known as Myanmar' or some such phrase to help educate the audience that both names are in use.

Cambodia did not become Kampuchea. It became the Khmer Republic, some time later Kampuchea, then Democratic Kampuchea, before reverting. The BBC never used the 'Democratic' form: but it does refer to the 'Democratic republic of Congo' as wished by the régime there, rather than the neutral and long-established 'Congo Kinshasa'.

Another John in @1 has it wrong on Zimbabwe. There was never a country called Rhodesia, except as used by the illegal Smith régime, but the BBC willingly adopted that name nevertheless. The correct name was Southern Rhodesia until independence when it was briefly Zimbabwe Rhodesia then Zimbabwe.

The BBC will find it difficult to be consistent between countries and fashions over naming. Simply, you should tell the audience the whole situation where several names are in use.

  • 17.
  • At 03:38 AM on 04 Oct 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

I understand that in the UK my country is sometimes still referred to as "The Colonies." Hope springs eternal.

  • 18.
  • At 05:53 PM on 08 Oct 2007,
  • Carlos Gonçalves. wrote:

Myanmar vs. Burma, Mumbai vs. Bombay (btw, it simply derives from Portuguese Bombaim, a corruption of "Boa Baía, meaning good bay), and then what about Sri Lanka vs. Ceylan?

I read every comment with interest and became gradually curious about the chance of seeing something commented about that island country.

In the line of what certain commented, original or Vernacular names seem to have acquired a political status in the course of time that turn the names by which we knew or still know certain places completely wrong - this is nonsense.

That is certainly the case of Ceilão in Portuguese, Ceylan, a mere corruption of the name Sry Lanka, nothing else!

May the media stop using "silly" names instead of the corrupted forms the world adopted ages ago, and let the locals use the original names, like England, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Mumbai & alike!

Carlos Gonçalves, Lisboa (Lisbon), Portugal.

  • 19.
  • At 11:51 AM on 27 Nov 2007,
  • Tony Fellows, Sandwell wrote:

I think it is disgusting that the BBC thinks it has the political 'right' to pick and choose names of countries. If any of the BBC were historians they would readily see that Burma was known as Myanmar since the 12th Century. Although there are 138 ethnicities within Myanmar the dominant one is Myannarese. The city title Yangon was known as that well before the British colonised the country and twisted the title to Rangoon.
I suggest the BBC and particulary the person Titherington read his asian history before taking a political stance. Lets face it the BBC is fast becoming a second rate news agency from making these political decisions - it should know that it's not a government body, and therefore does not have the power to prevent countries renaming their own domains !!
One day the BBC will have to change and that day I look forward to that time and will make a point of tittering at Titherington's juvenile stupidity. And I pay license money to such a ridiculous organisation...give me Sky anyday

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