Istanbul not Constantinople

December 17, 2012 by  
Filed under Blogs, Hot Button / Lynn Ashby





“Poor Mexico: so far from God, and so close to the United States,” Mexican President Porfirio Diaz reportedly said. The old dictator was correct. Not only do we buy Mexico’s drugs and, in turn, send cash and guns south across the border, this country also took over that country’s name. Now that may change. I shall explain: The recently departed Mexican President Felipe Calderon tried once more to change his country’s official name from Estados Unidos Mexicanos or the United Mexican States to simply Mexico.

In his final news conference, Calderon noted that the name was originally taken because, back in 1824 after Mexico became free from Spain, the United States of America was an example of democracy and liberty for the newly independent nations in the Americas. Now, he said, his nation no longer needs to copy the gringos’ title. (He didn’t really say gringo, but the title fits.) “It’s time for Mexicans to return to the beauty and simplicity of the name of our country, Mexico. A name that we chant, that we sing, that makes us happy, that we identify with, that fills us with pride.” Incidentally, the title Mexico was a word first used by the Aztecs in their original nahuatl language. They founded a city called Tenochtitlan but it was changed to Mexico City because Tenochtitlan wouldn’t fit on license plates (the DF was added later).

Calderon first proposed the name change as a congressman in 2003, but the bill did not make it to a vote. Even today his idea doesn’t have much chance of success, since his replacement, President Enrique Pena Nieto, has other priorities such as fighting drug wars which claimed at least 47,500 victims during Calderon’s term in office. Then there is that nation’s rising poverty rate and chances of Mexico making it to the World Cup. “Forgive me for the expression, but Mexico’s name is Mexico,” Calderon added, and he has a point. Most people, including Mexicans, don’t use the official title. You have to hunt for state documents, currency and obscure legal parchments even to find the Spanish-language version of the United Mexican States.

North of the Rio, we usually refer to our own country as America, although it isn’t clear why we should monopolize the name of two continents. A Canadian Eskimo or a Patagonian shepherd has just as much right to call himself an American as does the Tea Party. Indeed, a Mexican can call himself an American, but pride would prevent it. Still, America and Americans are handy names, just like when we refer to the Netherlands as Holland when Holland is only a part of that country. We say England when we mean Britain but actually that land of tea and press scandals is officially the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland which is not the same as the United Kingdom or UK. The old Soviet Union was not Russia, but that’s what we called it even though Russia was one of 15 nations under one despot.

Not all name changes are for the better. What ever happened to Bombay and Burma? Goodbye Peking, hello Beijing. Remember the song, “Istanbul not Constantinople”? That Turkish city’s name changed in 1930, after several centuries, for no particular reason. The famous Battle of Stalingrad took place in today’s Volgograd, its original name. Leningrad is once again Saint Petersburg, but what can we expect from a country that celebrates its “great October revolution” in November?

Americans – that’s us — no longer have New Amsterdam (NYC) or Pig’s Eye (St. Paul, Minn.) or Fort Raccoon (Des Moines, which is French for Fort Raccoon). Hot Springs, New Mexico, is gone. Today it is Truth or Consequences. In 1950, Ralph Edwards, the host of a radio quiz show, “Truth or Consequences,” announced he would air the program from the first town that renamed itself after the show. Hot Springs won the honor. Can we look forward to Yes, Virginia (there is a Santa Claus) or Dancing with the Lone Stars, Texas?

For years the United States was called just that, but were considered plural. “The United States are….” The idea was that they were a bunch of states which were sort of united, thus States was/were plural. Appomattox fixed that, although the Constitutional amendment abolishing slavery in 1865 refers to “the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” Their, not its.

Have you ever been to the states of Massachusetts, Virginia, Kentucky or Pennsylvania? Don’t bother. They aren’t states at all, but commonwealths, which sounds communistic: “common wealth” – let’s share everything. No wonder Obama did so well there. In Rhode Island there is a movement to shorten that state’s name from The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to just Rhode Island because Plantations sounds so “Gone With The Wind.” Not proper for a state whose early residents made their fortune in the slave trade. (Brown of Brown University, etc.)

Texas was originally Tejas or Coahuila y Tejas or Tejas y Coahuila, depending on who got top billing. Before there was a Houston there was a Harrisburg. Dallas stands on land that was called Peters Colony. Fort Worth was called West of Dallas. Waterloo was changed to Austin because “Keep Waterloo Weird” just didn’t stick. San Antonio was originally San Antonio de Bejar which somehow became Bexar, as in Bexar County, pronounced “riverwalk.” Don’t complain, the Indians called the place Yanaguana. The Yanaguana Spurs?

El Paso was El Paso del Norte, Pass to the North, only the town was originally on the south side of the Rio. Amarillo was Oneida. A border town was called Fort Texas until Major Jacob Brown got himself killed defending it during the United Mexican States-American War, so the fort’s name was changed to Brownsville. I like Fort Texas better. As for changing the name of poor Mexico, so close to these United States, we can only wish good luck to former President Felipe Calderon and all the other folks in Tenochtitlan.


Ashby is renamed at





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