Czech Republic changes name for Czechia

The Czechs, pushed and pulled between East and West over the centuries, have long suffered from an identity crisis.

It doesn’t help that many foreigners consistently confuse their proud country, the Czech Republic, with its predecessor, Czechoslovakia, or its poorer cousin, Slovakia.

Or that, in 2013, some analysts mistakenly described the suspects in theBoston Marathon bombing as hailing from the Czech Republic — confusing it with Chechnya, a restive region of Russia nearly 2,000 miles away, andalarming Czech diplomats who issued a clarification.

So Czech leaders have proposed a new name that they hope will give the birthplace of Milan Kundera, Franz Kafka and Martina Navratilova greater recognition on the global stage: Czechia (pronounced CHECK-iya).

While the new name does not necessarily resolve the potential confusion with Chechnya — it might even cause more confusion, some critics say — proponents hope Czechia rolls off the tongue in English more easily than Czech Republic.

Variants that did not make the cut included “Czechlands,” “Bohemia” and, simply, “Czech.” (Pilsner Urquell, the storied beer maker, uses “Brewed in Czech” on its cans.)

“It’s not good when a country does not have any clearly defined symbols, or cannot say clearly what its name is,” Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoraleksaid on Tuesday, unveiling the proposal. “It would be good to set the record straight once and for all. We owe this to ourselves and to the world.”

On Thursday, Czech officials said they would have the name added to the United Nations database of geographical names, which records country names in the world body’s six official languages.

Mr. Zaoralek had hoped to see Czechia on athletes’ jerseys at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro this summer, but was dismayed to learn that uniforms emblazoned with “Czech Republic” had already been designed.

Mr. Zaoralek has found an ally in President Milos Zeman, who referred to his country as Czechia on a 2013 trip to Israel, saying it was shorter, “nicer” and less “cold-sounding” than the Czech Republic.

Proponents of the new name have already produced a website, “Go Czechia.” It notes that the name was used as early as 1634, and is derived from Latin.

“Czechia might sound strange to some people the first time they hear it, but so do numerous geographic names derived from foreign languages that are commonly used in English,” the website says, citing, among other examples, Idaho, Massachusetts and Zimbabwe.

The Czech Republic is hardly the only country to grapple with the word “Republic” in ordinary parlance. It is joined by the Central African Republic, the Dominican Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name a few.

But there is something distinctively Czech about the soul-searching. Czechoslovakia was created only in 1918, out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The nation suffered the seizure of territory by Hitler in 1938 and a Soviet-led invasion in 1968. In 1989, its people ended decades of Communist rule in the Velvet Revolution. But in 1993, it split — amicably — into separate Czech and Slovak states.

Czechs began to refer to their newly truncated country as “Cesko” (CHES-ko), but there was no universal agreement over how to translate that into English. (Czechia is the correct translation, the foreign ministry says.)Vaclav Havel, the writer turned president, who opposed the split, hated the name Cesko, which, aides say, reminded him of Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment; Havel said it made him feel “as if snails were crawling” over him.

Jiri Pehe, a political scientist and former Havel aide, who directs New York University’s program in Prague, applauded the proposed change. The name Czech Republic has always been viewed, he said, as a messy compromise, an uneasy accommodation of three distinct regions: Moravia in the east, Bohemia in the west, and Silesia in the northeast. The French, he noted, do not commonly call their country the French Republic, its official name.

“When I meet people from abroad, I say I am from Prague,” Mr. Pehe said. “If you say you are from the Czech Republic, people scratch their heads and ask where that is in Yugoslavia. It creates an identity crisis when people don’t know the name of your country.”

Petrit Selimi, the foreign minister of Kosovo, who helped lead the country’srebranding after it declared independence from Serbia in 2008, noted the branding potential, saying that Czechia was easy to remember and pronounce, and would work equally well on a soccer jersey, during a diplomatic meeting or in a Facebook post.

Others, however, were less persuaded.

David Cerny, a Czech sculptor who has satirized European identity — portraying Slovakia as a Hungarian sausage and Bulgaria retooled as a Turkish toilet — called the new name misguided and “idiotic.” He said the rebranding was a cynical distraction from pressing problems like corruptionand right-wing extremism.

“This whole renaming exercise is the tail wagging the dog,” he said. “The real problem these days is what is going on with the country — not with the name of the country.” He added: “The name Czechia is neither sexy nor rock ’n’ roll.”

Karel Schwarzenberg, a former foreign minister, suggested simply using the name Bohemia, which was used as early as medieval times. “Why are we avoiding the historic name Bohemia, which for centuries served as the name of our country?” a Czech news site, Aktualne, quoted him as saying. “Why do we have to do this artificially and make up names like Czechia?”

But critics retorted that Bohemia only refers to the historic region in the west. “I think the name Czechlands would be fairer,” said Ondrej Hysek, chairman of the Moravians, a political party that promotes Moravian identity.

Finance Minister Andrej Babis, a Slovak by birth, told Aktualne he did not think the new name would catch on.

“People around the world are used to saying Czechoslovakia or Czech Republic, and changing this to Czechia will be difficult,” he said, adding: “Even I can’t get it out of my mouth.”

Source: The New York Times


2 comments on “Czech Republic changes name for Czechia

  1. I am commenting on the proposed thought of changing the name Czech Republic, which seems to have been disparaged and a problem of identification of the proud nation known as the Czech Republic. As in “confusion” noted in the larger discourse in NYT and in other media I must say has not reached or even surfaced in Houston, Texas or even given thought here and probably in other Czech heritage havens in the United States. Houston is a very diverse international city with 104 distinct heritages and languages. At the Czech Center Museum Houston since our opening in September 2004 in the Museum District having been chartered as a 501-c-3 non-profit educational, cultural arts organization designated so by the State of Texas March 6, 1996 we hold as our mission to enhance civil society to ensure world citizenship regardless of heritage through teaching history, heritage, culture and hospitality programming offered to our community at large. We have visitors from every state and every country as we celebrate our ancestors of Czech and Slovak immigrants who came stayed and made a difference as did all immigrants in building our State of Texas in every field. At no time have we ever had any confusion about Czech or Czechoslovakia, and indeed what we do every day is to stand for Czech person’s identity and homeland, not Czechia but Czechoslovakia. There appears something wrong about changing the name of the founders of the Czech nation, Tomas Masaryk, the Czech Moravian founder in 1918. If one has read world history you readily know this even from many editions from National Geographic. You surely have read about our great American General George Patton, who liberated Czechoslovakia as far as the City of Pilsen. Here again history says Czechoslovakia not “Czechia” that sounds rather eastern Europe like another country whereas the nation of Czechoslovakia is the “heart” of central Europe. Read earlier history, the early chronicles of Saint Wescenslas, patron of the Czech lands from whom they derived their pride of country, of people, patriotism and moral values. Think of the history of the first Czech, Grandfather Czech, who emigrated from the steppes to Rip Hill in Prague where the first seat of government was established. Additionally, would anyone even think of changing his name, Vaclav Havel, I don’t believe so! Historians the world over know him.
    In Texas, there are estimated a million persons of Czech heritage and they are proud of it and they certainly know where it is and know who they are as “Czech.” We speak to that identify that nation not by any other name.
    And what could be wrong with “Czechland” as it serves so many others well, i.e. Poland, Scotland, Switzerland, Holland, Finland, Greenland, Iceland and Ireland. It would certainly cement clarity and avoid considerable cost in name changing. I have a thought: “Rebranding” is a current fad and a marketing trend, and a bad choice at this time. Perhaps the hype just may be to continue promoting this lovely land with bright people who after many years have a chance at happiness and return of their identity.
    Viewing a great exhibit called “The History of The Brave Little Czech Nation” from the Czech Embassy could be a great way as a “deconfuser” (I made up the word) of all those who may be confused.
    Thank you for your time, I am a Czech immigrant farmer’s daughter, a Texas American proud to be known as a Czech. Incidentally, all the Slovaks we know have no “confusion” about Czechoslovakia. It was the original name of their country. They consider themselves brati, brothers. We do too! To call them anything other than that I believe is derogatory!
    Effie Sojak Rosene
    Czech Center Museum Houston

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