Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai or Bombay?

The tragic news from India has had the side effect of bringing to light the question of the city's name - Mumbai or Bombay? And it's one that has left media organisations scratching their heads.

Invariably a lot of people are going to jump out and assert that the city's "official English name" is "Bombay", perhaps with something about us not calling the Italian capital "Roma" and maybe claims that language can't be changed. But a language is a dynamic thing, with usage prone to changing. And can't an entity change its name if it wishes? When Reginald Kenneth Dwight choose to change his name, didn't he become Elton Hercules John immediately? Or did some vague entity who makes "official" statements about the English language (there isn't one) have to declare the name had changed before the new one could be used?

So for all the controversial background to it, the name "Mumbai" is now used in English for this city. And also in my experience the city is not normally talked about much at all in the UK. So it's harder to make assertions about what regular usage is, although in my personal experience virtually every relevant conversation I've had in recent years has used "Mumbai".

"But we say 'Bombay duck' and 'Bollywood'" I hear people cry. This is true, but then the use of "Beijing" has not wiped out "Peking duck" has it? At the end of the day usage can change and change can be encouraged. And in this case the drive to us "Mumbai" has largely succeeded.

And of course now that a lot of media outlets are calling it "Mumbai", that's the term dominating search engines. So news websites still using "Bombay" are finding they're losing potential traffic.

See also meditations71: Bombay or Mumbai?, The English Blog: Words in the News: Bombay or Mumbai, Matt's Geography Blog: Mumbai Was Bombay and The Guardian: Bombay or Mumbai? How UK media outlets are finally moving with the times for other takes on this issue.


Anonymous said...

Yes Tim, but the French call London "Londres". It's not the Indian masses driving the name change. There is no need for surrender to the liberal elite and use politically-correct names, particularly as we have an established and recognisable name for the city.

Tim Roll-Pickering said...

Yes there are cities with different names in different languages but that's an accident of history (and the Munich/Monaco confusions that can occur show why having a single name in all languages can be useful, especially for touristy boards).

Ultimately the source of the name change isn't relevant, it's whether it takes off. I think on this city the name change has now come to pass, at least in the UK, as shown by most of the media reports using "Mumbai". Are they "surrendering" etc... or are they just using the name generally used for the place by others around them?

Is a town not allowed to make a change? "Camberley" was renamed from "Cambridge Town" - does anyone still use the old name?

Anonymous said...

I'm normally happy for citizens to rename their cities. However "Mumbai" is different. The name change was (and is) part of a political, and arguably racist, agenda to entrench Hindu nationalism in India by obliterating place names that reflect other aspects (British, Islamic, Sikh, etc.) of Indian history and culture. The name change was forced on the city and does not have popular support: Everyone I've ever met from that city calls it Bombay - and that's how I shall continue to call it.


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