The Ecotone theme for this biweek, Place Names, has inspired Nancy Gandhi of Under the Fire Star (which is six months old today—congratulations!) to an excellent entry on Madras/Chennai and its places:

Living in an ex-colony, I’ve discovered, means that place-names are highly mutable. The funniest example came during the Vietnam War, when the American Consulate in Calcutta went to sleep on Harrington Street and woke up on Ho Chi Minh Sarani—a little joke played on the Americans by the Communist government of the state of West Bengal, which continues to this day. (There’s a useful page here with old and new names for Calcutta streets—I wish there were one for Chennai.)

The city where I live was called Madras for 350 years, since the British cobbled it together from a number of existing villages. (It survived long enough to give America a fabric called ‘bleeding madras,’ in the sixties of the last century.) In 1996, some local politicians decided that Madras was a ‘colonial’ name, and should be replaced with a ‘real’ Tamil name, Chennai. Ironically, the writer Shashi Tharoor has some scathing things to say (this is the cached version—couldn’t get the original) about the name and the decision. It seems that Chennai was originally Chennappa-pattinam, a settlement named after a local Telugu (not Tamil) chieftain. Local historian S. Muthiah thinks that, if the name had to be changed at all—he opposed it—it should have been changed to Mylapore, the largest of the existing villages brought within the city limits. Mylapore was an ancient seaport, which sent traders and culture-bearers across the sea to Southeast Asia. However, the city’s residents were not asked for their opinions, and here we are in Chennai….

Personally, I wish sites like the “old and new names” one were available for every major city. And I wish governments would stop messing around with the names people are used to (or, failing that, I wish people would stubbornly stick with the old names). Place names are as much our collective heritage as any other part of language.

Addendum. The Tharoor article is online here.


  1. With successive names, though, you get this historical depth. In China governments changed city names from time to time, seemingly just for good luck (even without regime change or a new emperor). You can date texts and sometimes events by whichever name a given city has.
    And places like Central Asia (Samarqand and thereabouts) have a different name for every civilization which reached there — Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Greek, Russian, English, Turkish. It adds to the fun.

  2. New names for new civilizations is cool. New names to pay off some helpful alderman or honor somebody’s brother-in-law or some genocidal general — not so cool.

  3. Some time back (I think in the 70s) a town in England did actually change its name entirely at the whim of its residents.
    The redrawing of county boundaries meant that Appleby’s county, Westmoreland, would cease to exist, and instead Appleby would be part of the large and amorphous county of Cumbria.
    Locals organised a campaign, and eventually the town got its name officially changed to Appleby-in-Westmoreland, which it’s still called.

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