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Them's fighting words! The politics of place names

Wednesday - 8/6/2014, 7:37pm  ET

FILE - This July 20, 2011 file aerial photo, taken through the window of a closed aircraft, shows Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. The Philippines, locked in disputes with China over several islands, proclaimed in 2012 that part of the South China Sea would be henceforth called the West Philippine Sea. (AP Photo/Rolex Dela Pena, Pool, File)

KEN MORITSUGU
Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) -- Is it the Persian Gulf or the Arabian Gulf? Mount McKinley or Denali? Mumbai or Bombay?

Some geographic names don't just tell us where we live or where we're going. They're also a political statement, or in the eyes of some, a politically incorrect one. They may not spark a war of the worlds, but they can cause a war of words.

China struck back last week after Japan slapped monikers on 158 previously unnamed islands off its shores. Five of them are part of a cluster that both nations claim and is itself the subject of a name dispute: Is it the Senkaku or the Diaoyu islands?

"No unilateral action undertaken by Japan can change the fact that Diaoyu and its surrounding islands belong to China," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, using his country's name for the remote tropical islands in the East China Sea.

One of the most cited examples is a 1970s feud over Cyprus that played out in a United Nations forum. It started after Turkey occupied the northern part of the Mediterranean island, and replaced Greek names for villages with Turkish ones.

In a letter to the U.N. conference on geographic names, Cyprus accused Turkey of committing "all kinds of unprecedented atrocities" against the Greek population, according to retired Israeli cartographer Naftali Kadmon, who reviewed the official documents.

"They demonstrate that geographical names can constitute explosive items or, in popular terms, hot potatoes," he wrote in a 2004 article for The Cartographic Journal in Britain.

The Turkish Federated State of Cyprus, which Kadmon noted was not recognized by the U.N., responded in kind, saying, "The willful and unjustified change of names has been a political pastime of the Greek Cypriot leaders for a long number of years."

The study of geographic names is known as toponymy, and those who specialize in it say it's more than an academic pursuit.

"In a sense, naming expresses ownership, because it implies both comprehension and the legitimacy of the namer's historical and cultural legacy," professor Dan Montello wrote in a 2010 posting on the University of California, Santa Barbara, geology department's website. "Hence, colonizers and claimants to territory usually change toponyms, and the original owners usually change them back if and when they get a chance."

Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City in 1976 after the North defeated the South and its American allies in the Vietnam War.

Since 1984, it's been Burkina Faso, not Upper Volta, or Haute-Volta, as its former French rulers dubbed the West African state.

In India, part of Britain's former empire, Bombay became Mumbai in 1995, and the southern city of Madras was renamed Chennai the following year.

Politicians sometimes make these changes to stir national or ethnic pride, and some in Mumbai still feel uncomfortable with the name change, which was carried out by a nativist party that rose to power after stoking deadly anti-Muslim riots in the city, said Naresh Fernandes, the author of "City Adrift: A Short Biography of Bombay."

"Given the bloody circumstances in which the name was changed, the word Mumbai now smells to me of gloating triumphalism, and I always call the city Bombay," said Fernandes, who covered the name change as a reporter for The Associated Press in 1995.

East Asian waters are dotted with islands claimed by more than one country, putting even the names of the seas in dispute.

South Korea gained a victory this year when the U.S. state of Virginia, pressured by Korean Americans, agreed that new school textbooks should note that the Sea of Japan is also known as the East Sea, the name it prefers for the waters between the two countries.

The Philippines, locked in disputes with China over several islands and reefs, proclaimed in 2012 that part of the South China Sea would henceforth be called the West Philippine Sea.

For Japan, it was the act of naming the 158 islands last week that mattered, not the actual names. Now most of the 500 islands used to define the extent of Japan's territorial waters have been named.

"It's a rather unique mega-naming gambit to lay claim to uninhabited islands, reflecting Tokyo's concern that Beijing might name and claim for itself," said Jeff Kingston, a professor of contemporary Japan at Temple University's campus in Tokyo.

Most of the islands are tiny outcroppings whose one requirement is that their highest point remains above water at high tide. About half of them had names used by fishermen and others, and the government adopted those as the official ones. The others, mainly in more remote waters, were given generic directional names such as Southeast Small Island, indicating their location relative to other geographic features.

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