People of Czechia, Turn Back! It's Not Too Late

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
This is not Czechia                                      (Wikipedia)

My two sons are each 50% Czech by background. So through the laws of algebraic equivalence, obviously this means that I myself represent one full Czech person. When you add in Deb, my all-Czech wife, in turn it’s obvious that our household constitutes two Czech votes. And then when you include the two halves from our sons, that makes three of us.

OK, just kidding on the imaginative math, plus warming up for creative delegate-counting at the GOP convention this summer. But I can honestly claim to be a native speaker of English. And in that role, I entreat authorities in my homeland-by-marriage of the Czech Republic: please, don’t change the English version of your name to “Czechia,” as apparently you’re planning to do.

What’s wrong with this new name? The minor issue — again, drawing on my authority as an English-speaker, since we’re the intended audience — is that it’s weird. No one in the English-speaking world has seen or heard it before.

Which leads to a larger problem: outsiders have heard the very similar-sounding (in English) name Chechnya. After the Boston Marathon bombing, the Czech ambassador complained that his country was being unfairly confused with Chechnya, where the bombers were from. Linguists at Language Log elaborated on the problem. Long before the bombing, the famous “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos turned on the same confusion. Trust me, it’s only going to get worse with Czechia.

What’s the alternative? Our household casts its votes for any of these three:

  1. Czech Republic. Ain’t broke, don’t fix it (an English-language idiom). Lots of countries have two-word names. Dominican Republic. Costa Rica. Ivory Coast. New Zealand. Saudi Arabia. Sierra Leone. El Salvador. Sri Lanka. South Korea. In ye olden days, the Soviet Union. Puerto Rico, which participates in the Olympics separate from the United States. And, for that matter, the United States itself (plus the United Kingdom). The desire to boil the name down to one word is said to lie behind this move. That’s not a very good reason.
  2. Bohemia. OK, the Moravians and Silesians wouldn’t like it. But the rest of the world would recognize it immediately. It has panache.
  3. Česko. This is what you call yourselves already. Make it the English name too! No risk of confusion with any other countries. The flair of being the only country (that I’m aware of) with a C-with-háček in the international version of its name: Č means a ch- sound. Pride in saying: here’s our name, get used to it, rather than the corporate-branding workaround of Czechia.

That’s how our branch of the diaspora votes. Česko, Bohemia, or Czech Republic, Yes. Czechia, Ne.


UPDATE The Czech word for “yes” is ano, as I realize from visits there. So logically the concluding sentence of the post should have said:  “Česko, Bohemia, or Czech Republic, Ano. Czechia, Ne.” I chickened out from writing it that way, for fear that ano would be even more confusing to English readers than Czechia itself. (The meaning of ne is easier for English speakers to guess.) In any case this is the explanation for the mixed English/Czech Yes/Ne pairing in that sentence.