‘A Scandal in Czechia’

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Screenshot of Google ngram tracking, of the uses in English of the terms Czech Republic, Bohemia, and the suggested new name Czechia. For interactive version go here. Czechia does have the virtue of freshness, since practically no English-speakers have heard or seen it before.

Before I disappeared into article-writing land, I put up an item arguing that today’s Czech Republic, homeland of all of my wife’s forebears back when it was Bohemia within the Austro-Hungarian empire, should avoid the mistake of changing the English version of its name to “Czechia.” Instead I suggested: either stick with Czech Republic, go retro with Bohemia, or embrace the country’s own name for itself, Česko.

Little did I know that a whole website exists to advance the name Czechia, and to address “The myths and facts about the short English name of the Czech Republic.” Give it a look (I resisted saying check it out) and see if you are convinced. One of the less ironclad parts of the argument:

Myth No. 8: There are other countries that exclusively use political names without any problems. Examples include the Dominican Republic or the Central African Republic.
Fact: Although that is true, the vast majority of countries use short geographic names. The Dominican Republic and the Central African Republic are the only two countries in the entire world that do not have readily available short names.   

The only two countries? Umm, New Zealand? Costa Rica? Sierre Leone? Burkina Faso, the one-time Upper Volta? Trinidad and Tobago? You get the idea.

A surprisingly rich stream of responses has arrived while I’ve been away, in three main categories: linguistic, historical, and flat-out angry (from boosters of the “Czechia” cause). I’ll start off with the linguistic.

Reader Andreas Stolcke, whose first language was German and who now does language-related computer work at Berkeley, goes into the details. The illustrations he has provided are Google ngram charts, showing the frequency of certain words in books over the years:

Two observations (and associated questions):

1) As a native speaker of German, I was surprised to read about the rebranding proposal because German speakers have adopted the proposal a long time ago!

Tschechien  is the popular way to refer to the neighbors on the other side of the Bohemian Forest. Personally, the term actually seems foreign to me and I like the sound of Tschechische Republik  better, but  this Google ngram frequency plot [below] proves I’m in the minority.  Maybe the Czechs had German branding consultants in this matter?


1b) BTW, the corresponding plot for the English terms shows that there is no contest. [That’s the one shown at the top of this post.]

1c) Analogous to German, how many have other languages/countries effectively already adopted the Czechia  proposal, i.e., have a commonly used term for the country of the Czechs that is a word with a root cognate to "Czech"  and a simple suffix that means "land of" ?

2) The German Wikipedia page says that the Czech word for Bohemia is in fact Čechy, i.e., cognate of Czech.  How do the Moravians feel about this?  Do they feel like an appendage to the Czech/Bohemian “core”  of the country?  With your familial contacts you might be in a position to research this question ...   And how does this play into the discussion that no doubt is taking place internally about this rebranding proposal?  While both Czechia and Czech Republic are based on the same word, the latter has a slightly neutral feel (the
“Czech”  part makes up only 50% of the complete name ;-).

Actually, German has a third term for Czechia (I’m using the proposed term now for the sake of brevity only—maybe that's the argument that will ultimately win out here).

That alternate term is Tschechei, using a toponymic suffix -ei that is used elsewhere, such as in Slowakei (Slovakia), Mongolei (Mongolia), etc.  I was familiar with that term but always associated it with my grandparents’ generation.  Indeed, the German Wikipedia page states that the term became widely used in the 1930 and was promoted by the Nazis.   

After the war the term continued to be used, but upon the creation of the Czech Republic in the 1990s, the Czech government requested that the usage be discontinued in favor of Tschechien, precisely because of the association with Nazi colonial ambitions (Hitler used the term Rest-Tschechei to refer to what would be left of Czechia after subtracting the areas with German population).  It seems the request was successful—except in revisionist circles.

What is neat is that the Google ngram frequency plot for all three terms bears out this interesting history of linguistics and politics quite accurately.

Among other things, it shows that the current preference of Tschechien over Tschechei is not just the result of political correctness but actually predates the Nazi's favoring the latter term. For example, in books published in 1920,Tschechien was 8 times as often used as was Tschechei, so the short form is legitimately old.

Anyway, this is a detour into the specifics of German-Czech history, but it is clearly useful to know as background to the discussion of country naming.


Scholar that he is, Stolcke proposed a direction for further research:

Regarding the question I posed earlier, one methodology for resolving it would be to inspect the wikipedia pages for Czech Republic  in other languages (conveniently linked to on the left side) and look for a single-word term, then try the frequency of both that and the official two-word term according to Google ngrams.  That would be quite time-consuming, so I didn't do it (yet).  However, it looks like Spanish, French, Polish, and Danish all have a single-word terms listed that looks vaguely similar to Czechia.  In other words, English might really be an outlier in linguistic terms.

I thanked Stolcke for his research — and thanked him again when he reported back after doing the further hypothesis-testing he had set out:

Applying the suggested approach to four European languages, taken from three different IE language sub-families spoken on the continent:

1) Italian:  the one-word form exists (Cechia) but is not nearly as much in use as the two-word form (Repubblica Ceca).  Still, Cechia is obviously the older term, since there was no Czech Republic until fairly recently!  (See  ngram plot below.)

Spanish and French also seem to have little use for their one-word equivalents of Czechia.

2) Russian:  in 2008 books, the one-word form (RЧе́хия) is about three times as frequent as the two-word form (Че́шская Респу́блика). (See  ngram plot:)

3) Danish:  the Google ngram viewer doesn't have a Danish corpus, but the number of web pages retrieved by google.dk for Tjekkiet is about twice that forTjekkiske Republik.

Another Germanic language is German, of course, where the one-word formTschechien is used about three times as much as Tschechische Republik (as shown earlier).

Some caveats:

a) Google ngrams are collected from books only.  Usage in the language more broadly may be have a different profile, though one would think that the shorter (one-word) forms are even more preferred in informal and spoken language.

b) The frequencies are for the citation forms.  I'm not sure how inflectional morphology, e.g., in Russian, would change the relative frequencies.  Probably not much.

c) The data stops in 2008.

Bottom line:  in the matter of Czechia vs. Czech Republic  English behaves much more like French than a Germanic language (not that surprising given the Norman invasion).

So how did English speakers refer to the land of the Czechs before, say, 1960, since they didn't have the historical one-word country name that the Germanic and Slavic languages had in their dictionaries?   I'm guessing that the answer  lies in this plot.  

If he were alive and writing today, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have Sherlock Holmes solve "A Scandal in Czechia".

Now we know! Thanks to Andreas Stolcke.

Historians, and angry readers, to be heard from soon.