"...The Good News From Gand to Aachen"


AN isolationist, as I understand it, is a superpatriot who neither likes nor understands any nation except our own. Mr. Ickes, for all his boasted interest, in foreign affairs, is exactly that; he has forced upon us such outlandish spellings of the cities and rivers of Europe that we cannot even understand where the Allied armies are fighting. And certainly we will withdraw from such an incomprehensible continent as soon as the fighting is over.

It is because of a Diktat from Mr. Ickes’s Interior Department — itself a significant clue to his intentions — that war correspondents keep writing about such strange streams as the Maas, such unheard-of cities as Lwów, ‘s Hertogenbosch, and Peiraieus. Soon the papers will start telling us about claims and counterclaims for territory, and unless something is done, Americans will be puzzling out such incredible places as Cieszyn and Ostpreussen. Obviously they will not know, and not knowing they will lose interest; a large proportion of the American people will borrow Mr. Chamberlain’s words about Czechoslovakia, and decide that Europe is a faraway continent “of which we know little” and for which we will do nothing.

For who, besides Mr. Ickes and a few cartographers, knows that the Maas is really the river which we knew from our grammar school days as the Meuse? That ‘s Hertogenbosch is merely Boisle-Duc, and Lwów is Lemberg, Peiraieus is Piraeus, Cieszyn is Teschen, Ostpreussen is East Prussia? I do not say that our hearts would bleed automatically for Europe if we could understand these names in the day’s news, but certainly such an understanding is a prerequisite.

Mr. Ickes’s instrument masquerades under the innocuous title of the United States Geographic Board. It was set up back in 1890 by a stalwart Republican, Benjamin Harrison, and confirmed in its powers by the no less stalwart Herbert Hoover. The board’s function, as redefined by Mr. Hoover, was merely to decide the correct spelling of places in the United States so that Presidential proclamations would not offend local patriots. It was an agency of the Interior Department of the United States, and again and again it left the Meuse and the people of Bois-le-Duc alone.

Mr. Ickes, however, had other plans — his years in Chicago should not be forgotten — and in 1933, in the guise of a Sixth Report which was supposed merely to digest the work it had been doing on American names, the board set out to render all foreign names unpronounceable and unspellable.

It is worth noting that Mr. Ickes’s men are perfectly aware of what they are doing. In an explanation of their departure from the American May, they admitted that it is impossible to transcribe words from Slavic or Oriental languages into Roman characters with any sort of accuracy. They conceded that even in the case of French, German, and Italian place names certain “conventional” forms have long since been adopted which are much better known than those actually used by the natives. As an example, they remarked that the capital of Austria (this was in 1933, remember, and they would now undoubtedly select the Nazi name of Ostmark for that country) is called Wien by the inhabitants, though it is known throughout the Englishspeaking world as Vienna.

With such an obvious example to guide them, it might have been expected that the board would follow the sensible rule of accepting the name that is familiar to Americans, rather than the preference of the local citizens. It did not do so, the pretext being that, after all, some American might want to write a letter to Vienna, and if so it would be delivered quicker with Wien on the envelope. From this it went on to decide in favor of the local name for all foreign towns, cities, rivers, mountains. Only in the case of entire countries was it permissible to use the English version — for example, Germany instead of Deutschland. As a permissible alternative spelling it authorized Vienna, for example. But always the experts of the Interior Department said the local spelling was much the best.

The Sixth Report therefore gives some strange and wonderful renderings of names that once were familiar to every American. For Munich, see München; for Aix-la-Chapelle, see Aachen; for Rheims, see Reims; for Naples, see Napoli; for Prague, see Praha; for Warsaw, see Warszawa; for Moscow, see Moskva. Always the accents must be supplied, though we have no accents in English, so it is Zürich and Genève, not Zurich and Geneva. Always the extra letter, making it reasonably possible for the American tongue to make something of a strange name, is suppressed. No vagary of local nomenclature is too small to be ignored, and woe to the obstinate bureaucrat who tries to write Mexico City when the board, at least, knows that the Mexicans for some reason prefer to write it México, D.F.

When the board reached the Pacific it became even more exacting. Thus, although the few Americans who had heard of the principal Dutch (sorry, I mean Netherlands) naval base in Java knew it as Surabaya, the board must make it Soerabaja. It would be too easy to identify the northernmost chain of Japanese islands as the Kuriles, and so the board, as a friendly gesture to the Mikado, makes them to be the Chishima Islands. The Sunda Islands also are too familiar, so they become the Soendas.

The experts also are severe with anyone who is behind on his Chinese and doesn’t know that kiang and ho both mean river. Therefore you must never say the Si Kiang River when you only mean the Si Kiang, or the Hwang Ho River when it is the Hwang Ho. This last, incidentally, is none other than the Yellow River of our geography books. But the board says you must never, never translate a name into something an American can understand, even though the Spaniards always call our Red River the Rio Rojo, even though the French name for New Orleans is, naturally, Nouvelle Orléans. “Mais, messieurs,” as Mr. Ickes’s men would never say, “nous parlons français et nous donnons des noms français à toutes les villes du monde.”

We owe to the French the relatively simple versions of foreign place names which prevailed until the advent of Mr. Ickes. The French could just as easily understand the quaint American custom of singing opera in unknown languages as they could this insistence upon local spellings. They saw no reason why they should copy such un-French names as Köln and Firenze when they could say Cologne and Florence; English and American writers, until 1933 at least, followed their example with the exception of a few Slavic names, in which we followed the German practice — for example, Lemberg for the unpronounceable Lwów. The English went farther and gave nicknames to any locality where they spent much time, a thoroughly useful practice; for instance, the principal praça in Lisbon (not Lisboa, despite Mr. Ickes) is Black Horse Square to the English and that is that.

With French names we had been as free as the French had been with other people’s. Certainly everybody knows that in France Marseilles is spelled Marseille, and Lyons is spelled Lyon; and if one has the time and ability to stop in the midst of an English sentence to give the French pronunciations, they should be written in the French style. Few Americans, however, are capable of doing so, and the s was added to make it easier to give an American pronunciation.

Mr. Ickes, though, is afraid we shall insult the French with Marseilles, the Russians with Moscow. And he wants the good news of Germany’s liberation brought from Gand to Aachen, not from Ghent to Aix.

It takes a good while to discover any reasonable excuse for this strange desire to copy names from foreign railway stations. At last, however, it develops that, in the view of Mr. Ickes’s men, not only will letters be delivered more promptly if they are sent to Firenze than to Florence, but the Florentines will feel immensely flattered and will be likely to give a much bigger order to the American firm responsible for this delicate attention.

As one who has spent a fair amount of time in foreign countries, I disagree entirely with this theory. Letters sent to me in Florence, or in Marseilles, or (from Frenchmen) in Londres got there just as quickly as any other. Nor did I discover that the Florentines, or the Marseillais, or the Londoners harbored any kind of resentment for the fact that the letters were sent in the language of the people who wrote them. In any case, there are dozens of commercial gazetteers which can supply full particulars of local spelling, in Arabic or Chinese characters if Mr. Ickes wants to go all-out for increased trade.

I suspect, however, that this cult of local names is derived mainly from a confused attempt to propitiate local nationalism. For some obscure reason, every outbreak of nationalism in Europe thus far has been accompanied by a sudden emphasis upon these curious names. The Norwegians had to abolish the perfectly good name of Christiana and rename their capital Oslo. The Czechs, proud of their independence, no longer were satisfied with Prague, which resembles the German Prag, and insisted upon Praha.

The Turks had to have it Istanbul instead of Constantinople. And the Russians, busy with a nation-wide rechristening, changed Petrograd (once the more satisfactory St. Petersburg) to Leningrad, changed Samara to Khubysheff, changed Samarkand to Uzbek (I am glad to note that the board, though it doubtless never heard of James Elroy Flecker, at least holds fast to Samarkand).

All these vagaries, and scores more, have been slavishly followed by Mr. Ickes’s board.

The cable desks of the newspapers not only have followed but have even gone farther. (It is Mr. Kent Cooper’s Associated Press which writes about fighting around the IJsselmeer, which then turns out to be just the Zuyder Zee.) And this movement has gone on despite the fact that the particular spelling of a name is often a matter that is hotly debated within the country itself.

Liege, for instance, is Liége to the French-speaking Belgians and Luik to the Flemish. Lemberg is Lwów to the Poles, Lvov to the Russians, L’viv to the Ukrainian nationalists.

Which, one asks Mr. Ickes, is the American way?