Mumbai Not Bombay

Published in New York Times on: August 6, 2006 (On Language)

“Istanbul was Constantinople,” went the Kennedy-Simon song for which the Four Lads were awarded a gold record in 1953, reminding audiences, “now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople.. . .” Traditionalists in that beautiful city on the Bosporus could not really object to the change of name, made by the Turkish government in 1930, because the city’s original name of Byzantium was changed to Constantinople in the year 330 in honor of the emperor Constantine.

Name changing is catching on. Russia changed St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg again after Lenin was discredited; Volgograd regained its name after a period as Stalingrad (but some may be thinking of Putingrad). Burma’s military rulers — determined to break with the colonial past — renamed their country Myanmar, a 12th-century name, in 1989. In the same way, the western African nation of Upper Volta rejected its colonial name to assert itself in 1984 as Burkina Faso, which is a composite of local languages and is roughly translated as “the land of incorruptible men.”

The practice of name changing to reflect local roots — and the varying speeds of worldwide media adoption of new national and local monikers — was brought home recently by the dispatch about a terrorist attack datelined “Mumbai, India,” in The New York Times. It reported, “A string of powerful bombs ripped through a vital spine of Mumbai’s commuter train system. . .killing nearly 200 people, bringing India’s financial capital to a standstill.. . .” Two paragraphs later, the article helped its readers locate the scene with “more than six million people ride the trains in Mumbai, formerly Bombay.. . .”

The Washington Post, in its coverage, referred repeatedly to the familiar Bombay. So did most U.S. newspapers and electronic media: “At the Associated Press we say Bombay,” its librarian, David Goodfriend, informs me, “and all of our datelines from the city say Bombay. But usually about 9 or 10 graphs in, we’ll say that the city is also called Mumbai.”

In 2004, The Times decided to go along with the decision made nearly a decade before by local and national Indian authorities. The paper’s updated style manual decreed: “Mumbai, formerly Bombay. Gracefully remind readers of the former name of the Indian city when necessary.” Craig Whitney, The Times’s standards editor (to whom the wise and honest writers can repair), says: “In 2004, we decided to call it what it was calling itself. If you’ve tried to fly to Bombay on any airline over the past six years, you would find yourself looking up fares and schedules to Mumbai. Clearly, we waited long enough to see if it was sticking.”

Whitney adds: “In general, after a decent interval we call places what they call themselves — Ho Chi Minh City instead of Saigon, Myanmar instead of Burma, Frankfurt instead of Frankfort, etc., though on those first two (and perhaps on Mumbai as well) there are people who object for political reasons.”

Now let’s hear from Mark Rockmore, a top toponomist, or place-name expert, who keeps the official U.S. foreign-names database for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. (You never heard of the N.G.-I.A.? Have I blown a whole agency’s cover? Will the next On Language be written from jail?) “Bombay was an Anglicization of the Portuguese name for the city, but on our maps now the official use is Mumbai, commonly with Bombay in parenthesis.”

India leads the name-changing and respelling campaign. That colorful Madras shirt you’re wearing will soon be a Chennai shirt, because that’s the new name of the city, drawn from the Tamil language. And if you’re a tourist planning a visit to the famed Black Hole of Calcutta, you need to know that the name of India’s former capital city is now spelled Kolkata, a closer approximation of the Bengali name. “If I had to hazard a guess,” says the man from N.G.-I.A., “I’d say that within a year or so, Bangalore will likely change its name to the local Bengaluru, from the Kannada language. This is all an effort to shed the colonial British names and reassert local, indigenous names.”