A comment thread at pf has inspired me to deal with the vexed question of the various names for the capital of Kyrgyzstan. From 1926 to 1991 it was Frunze, which is not problematic (except for the Kyrgyz—see below), Frunze being the name of a local boy who became a Soviet general. But before that it was called Pishpek and now it is Bishkek; what is the relationship between these amusingly assonant names? Let’s go to E.M. Pospelov, Geograficheskie nazvaniya mira (my translation):
Founded in 1878 as a settlement [selenie] on the site of the former Kokand fortress Pishpek, which in 1926 was renamed Frunze after the Soviet party and military leader M.V. Frunze (1885-1925). But since there is no sound f in the Kyrgyz language and successive consonants at the start of a word are not allowed, the inhabitants pronounced the name Purunze. After Kyrgyzia achieved independence, the question of renaming the capital arose. It turned out that the etymology of the indigenous name Pishpek was unknown; the nearest Kyrgyz word was bishkek ‘whisk with which kumiss is stirred.’ To what extent this piece of household equipment [eta khozyaistvennaya prinadlezhnost’] might be linked with the name of the fortress is unclear, but in 1991 Bishkek was adopted as the new name of the capital.
I love dry wit in reference works.
I can’t resist quoting the anecdote (from jj, a friend of pf’s) that gave rise to the comments:
I left New York for Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, on Wednesday night. At the counter, the check-in agent asked me, “Where is Bishkek?”
“In Central Asia, near Kazkhstan, Uzbekistan and China.”
“I’ve never heard of that.”
She passed me to another agent. He checked me in, then announced, “Your bags are checked through to Frankfurt.”
“To Frankfurt? I’m not going to Frankfurt.”
“Yes, Frankfurt,” he said, looking at the FRU on the luggage tags.
“You must mean Frunze,” I said, “the old name for Bishkek. I’m going to Bishkek.”
He looked more carefully and realized his mistake. “I don’t think I’ve ever checked anyone in to Bishkek before,” he said. “I’ll have to go home and look that one up on a map.”
Addendum. In case anybody’s wondering why Kyrgyz were unable to pronounce the name of a local boy, Frunze (a variant of Frunza) isn’t a Kyrgyz name but a Romanian one—in Romanian, it means ‘leaf’ (cf French frondaison).
Update. See this post for further Central Asian linguistic fun.