I just ran across an article by Shashi Tharoor lambasting the 1996 change of Madras’s name to the allegedly more Tamil Chennai. As long-time readers know, I am skeptical of such changes in general (tradition being more appealing to me than nationalism), and the absurd details of this one delight me:
Not to be outdone, the chauvinist government in Madras renamed the state of Madras as Tamil Nadu – “homeland of the Tamils” – and decided that the city of Madras too would be rebaptized.
The chief minister had been informed that “Madras” was actually a Portuguese coinage, derived either from a trader named Madeiros or a prince called Madrie – just as Bombay came from the Portuguese “Bom Bahia,” or “good bay.”
“Madras is not a Tamil name,” announced the chief minister to justify his decision to rename the city Chennai. As with Bombay, name recognition – Madras kerchiefs, Madras jackets – went by the board as “Chennai” was adopted without serious debate.
Worse, however, the chief minister had overlooked the weight of evidence that Madras was indeed a Tamil name. It was derived, alternative theories go, from the name of a local fisherman, Madarasan; or from the local Muslim religious schools, madrasas; or from madhu-ras, from the Tamil word for honey.
Still worse, he had also overlooked the embarrassing fact that “Chennai” was not, as he had asserted, of Tamil origin.
It came from the name of Chennappa Naicker, the Rajah of Chandragiri, who granted the British the right to trade on the coast – and who was a Telugu speaker from what is today a different Indian state, Andhra Pradesh.
So bad history is worse lexicology, but in India it is good politics….
On a serious note, it seems to me outrageous that such a sweeping change can be rammed through by a single politician; shouldn’t the residents of a place have some say in what it’s called?