What's in a name? Keep it simple: Czechia

FRENCH PRESS AGENCY - AFP
PRAGUE
Published 28.04.2016 23:52
Updated 29.04.2016 00:02

Shall we call it the Czech Republic and/or Czechia? Since gaining independence following a peaceful split from Slovakia in 1993, the Czechs have been struggling to find the correct short form for their country's name. Led by President Milos Zeman, Czech officials, frustrated with seeing often wrong and chaotically used names for the Czech Republic, launched a campaign this month that should end the dispute once and for all. "I use 'Czechia,' because it sounds nicer and it's shorter than the cold Czech Republic," Zeman has said.

Czechs will propose that the United Nations register the names of "Czechia" in English, "Tchequie" in French, "Chequia" in Spanish and "Tschechien" in German as translations of the Czech version, "Cesko."

All of these are still subject to approval by the Czech government, and will be used wherever the longer, formal name is not required.

"The name 'Czechia' will not replace the full official name of the Czech Republic," the foreign ministry says on its website.

The relationship between the names will be similar to that of France with the nation's official name, the French Republic. But the issue has sparked controversy even inside the Czech centre-left government. "I disagree with the name 'Czechia'," said Regional Development Minister Karla Slechtova, adding, "I don't want people to confuse our country with Chechnya." The foreign ministry responded: "Poor geographical knowledge cannot be a reason for not using a country's name." And pointed out there are plenty of countries with similar-sounding monikers, from Niger with Nigeria, to Slovakia and Slovenia.

An acronym for "guinea-pig"

Czechs living abroad sometimes face unexpected problems when telling people where they were born. "I prefer to say I'm from Prague," says Ivana Schachnerova, who has lived in Italy since 1989. "When I say I'm Czech, everyone will help me cross the street." As Czech is pronounced "ceca" in Italian, it is confused with the Italian word "cieca" meaning blind.

The Czech language even does not have a generally accepted short name for the nation's territory, which was once the Bohemian Kingdom (Regnum Bohemiae) before becoming part of the Habsburg Monarchy.

In 1918 the land was incorporated into the newly-established Czechoslovakia, and then turned into the Czech Republic when Czechoslovakia split in 1993, four years after shedding four decades of totalitarian Communist rule.

The search for a short name has been a puzzler in a land that was founded, according to ancient legend, by the mythological "Forefather Cech." The land comprises the historic regions of Bohemia (Cechy) with 6.5 million inhabitants, Moravia (Morava, three million) and Silesia (Slezsko, one million).

A number of proposals have surfaced since 1993, including Morce, an acronym for Morava-Cechy, which means "guinea-pig" in Czech. Popular selection led to "Cesko" prevailed, despite opposition from many, including former president Vaclav Havel, who once said he felt like "slugs were creeping" on him when hearing the name. But those promoting greater regional autonomy insist that the word "Cesko" ignores both Moravia and Silesia.

'Czechomoravia'?

Ondrej Hysek, head of the regionalist political party The Moravians, argues the country should be called the "Czechlands" or even "Czechomoravia." For the party, "Czechia" and their non-English equivalents are "an anti-constitutional attack on the identity of the Moravian people," says Hysek.

The government expects to discuss the new name in May before submitting its request to the UN, says foreign ministry spokeswoman Michaela Lagronova. Kristina Larischova, a diplomat close to the issue, said the Czech Republic was "an exception, even an anomaly among developed democracies" in still lacking a short informal name which could be used in general conversation. "It is difficult to make such a decision in our own language and then in foreign languages," said Karel Oliva, head of the Institute of the Czech Language at the Czech Academy of Sciences. "At the end of the day, it's usage that will decide, and it won't ask whether the ministry has taken this or that decision," he added.

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