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Burma and Siam

A map of Burma and Siam from the 1905 New International Encyclopaedia.

There has been a lot of buzz about our president misspeaking and naming a non-existent country in a speech to the United Nations. I think we need to step back and realize just how many countries there are. Can we really expect someone to keep them all straight?

The spellings alone could keep a top seventh-grade spelling bee winner busy for months. Pronunciation is another challenge.

After all, Nambia sounds like a country. So too does Narnia, Ambrosia, Echinacea, so give a guy a break.

There are many countries I grew up learning about that don’t even exist anymore. And many new countries added. Renaming whole countries has also been a commonplace occurrence since I studied geography and history. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, The Gold Coast is now Ghana, and if you are looking for British Honduras, it is now the vacation mecca of Belize, which probably sounds far more exotic and appealing to travelers.

Siam is now Thailand. That means when children read the book “Anna and the King of Siam,” basis of the play and movie “The King and I,” they will ask if it is a fictional place.

Yugoslavia was divided into seven countries. Burma is Myanmar. Peking became Beijing. East Pakistan become Bangladesh in 1971. Persia is now Iran and Ethiopia used to be Abyssinia, which actually sounds more made up than the ones I mentioned earlier.

In recent years, I have heard the comment, “I never even knew there was such a place.” This usually was in reference to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan. In all fairness, these counties all arrived on the scene after 1991 with the dissolution of the USSR and don’t appear on any of our old globes. Some of us do still have globes.

When East Timor became independent from Indonesia in 2002, there probably were other things going on in the news that prevented us from even hearing about it. It was listed in the top world events of 2002, but with Kmart filing for bankruptcy that same year and “Spider-Man” opening and whatnot, it is not a surprise we missed it. If it only were as simple as renaming a country and getting on with business, life would be much easier for all concerned.

The spelling of places as well as actually locating them can be hard for even seasoned geographers. Wales has places that no one can pronounce and there are double letters, and some have no vowels. How can anyone hold them all in their heads? Take Brynmawr or Criccieth, Llanfyllin and Ynysddu for example. These are real places, but we wouldn’t necessarily be able to pronounce them, much less spell them.

Renaming countries may add interesting stamps to passports, but otherwise confusion remains.

Clark, Texas, has the right idea. If you are going to be renamed, you should at least get something for it. They named themselves, DISH, Texas, after EchoStar Communications, a dish network. All 55 households in the town were given free satellite television for 10 years.

Iceland had a name-the-country contest in 2012 and they were in the final stages of choosing by web votes in 2013, but apparently, they just couldn’t decide. ‘Let’s-Get-Lost-Land’ or ‘Isle of Awe Land’ remain in the running. Niceland was entered and it is appealing. Graceland was entered but was considered taken, so they decided to stick to Iceland, which we all can remember and spell.

As for all the newly developed and renamed places, if Nambia was named instead of Namibia or Zambia, it is an honest mistake. Even the United States changed from the United Colonies by an act of Congress, but I shouldn’t be giving anybody ideas for another name change.

Kay Stellpflug is an educator and trainer in interpersonal and professional communications. She works and lives in Beaver Dam and can be reached at