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?


  1. Quite a few decades ago, back in Transylvania, the city known by its polyglot denizens as Kolozsvar, Cluj, Klausneberg (sp?) was renamed Napoca in effort to “romanize” Romania, which, until then, was also known as Roumania. Strange, because what I remember most about the early history of Romania is that it served as a penal colony for Rome….

  2. When I attended my good friend Krishnan Dhandapani’s wedding in Madras toward the end of August in 2001, I always made sure to refer to the city by its new PC name, Chennai. During a fortnight in Tamilnadu, I never heard anybody refer to Chennai by any other name that Madras. They didn’t mock me for sticking with the newer moniker, but neither did they ever use it, unless to say that Madras’ name had been formerly changed to Chennai. Mumbai-Bombay on the other hand came out about 50-50, at least in English conversation among Tamilians.

  3. Arne Adolfsen says

    Earlier this year my roommate’s high school friend (they’re both over 60) stayed in our apartment for a little over a month as he was trying to sort out Social Security, insurance policies, and other problems that required face-to-face meetings. He’s been living in Cochin in Kerala for around 20 years now. I have no way of judging, but he claimed that his Malayalam is more than passable, and the social network he (and his Cochin-born wife and their son) has cultivated converse almost exclusively in that language.
    Anyway, I innocently referred to Bombay as Mumbai over dinner one night and he exploded in laughter. He explained that no one in his circle of friends — mid-level government functionaries, businessmen, and so on — has any intention ever to refer to the city as Mumbai.
    So I asked about Chennai/Madras. There, he said, the situation was even worse. His friends and acquaintances purposely go out of their way to stress the name Madras. His explanation, seconded by a former administrative assistant of mine who’s from Hyderabad in Andhra Pradesh, is that Tamilians are way too stuck on themselves and their language and, according to both, have caused true resentment among non-Tamilians. And, as Aravinda (my former asst.) said, neither city was founded by Indians so why do they need to have Indian-language names?
    By the way, Aravinda’s mother tongues are Telugu and English, but she has repeatedly commented to me over the years that she can’t understand why Tamil-nationalists, in particular, can’t get over the fact that India’s two major administrative languages are Hindi and English. She’s told me way more than once, or twice, or even three times, that although she speaks Telugu at home, speaking English (or Hindi, in India) doesn’t threaten her at all. “Telugu will survive,” she says.

  4. How do you feel about St. Petersburg/Petrograd/Leningrad?

  5. The one that baffles me is Spitsbergen / Svalbard. There aren’t any indigene nationalists, are there?

  6. Chris: I never liked “Leningrad,” so I felt a great relief when they changed it back to SPb. Incidentally, the May issue of Magazine littéraire is devoted to “écrivains de Saint-Pétersbourg” (they have sections on everyone from Pouchkine to the latest bunch; the linked page has the contents), with haunting photographs by Alexey Titarenko; it’s well worth seeking out if you read French.
    zizka: Well, at present they have different referents (Spitsbergen is part of Svalbard archipelago), but historically the former is the Dutch name (given by Barents) and the latter the Norwegian (‘cold region,’ used by Norse seafarers since the 12th century). The traditional Russian name was Grumant, which may be a distorted form of Greenland.

  7. It’s certainly unsettling to live in a city whose name changes. I prefer Madras, but Chennai is not a new coinage. Acc to The Imperial Gazetteer of India (1908) (which is online at ‘In honour of the local Naik’s father, Chennappa, the settlement, as distinct from the town of Madras itself, was called Chennappapattanam, but the natives now apply the name Chennapattanam [Chenna-town] to the whole city.’ In the seventies, when I studied in Madras, the Tamil radio station called itself Chennai Vanoli Nilayam (‘Chennai radio station’). The Tamil signs on the busses used Chennai. I had the sense that both names co-existed. That’s certainly the case in Bombay / Mumbai: My Gujerati husband says that since his childhood, when people spoke Marathi or Gujerati they used Mumbai; when they spoke in English they used Bombay. The largest Gujerati newspaper was called Mumbai Samachar. All the names still exist, one goes back and forth. Mount Road in Madras is at the same time Anna Salai in Chennai. (By the way, I believe that madhu-ras is the Sanskrit word for honey-juice – Tamil is full of Sanskrit loan-words, though the politicians hate to admit it.)

  8. See, we need somebody on the spot to clear these things up! That makes a lot of sense, and makes me feel better about Chennai (which, by the way, I investigated because of your page’s dateline). Many thanks.

  9. Arne Adolfsen says

    I concede that it’s probable that Marathi/Gujarati [I’ve always seen the second vowel in “Gujarati” as an “a” in English transliteration rather than an “e”, but what do I know?] speakers have always referred to Bombay as Mumbai, and that Tamilians have for ages used the name of a nearby settlement for the name of the city of Madras as a whole.
    That’s not really the issue. The issue is that nationalist politicians have mandated that both cities be referred to IN ENGLISH by their Indian-language names. What’s next? Egypt insisting that English-language media around the world talk and write about Al-Qahira and Al-Iskandariya instead of Cairo and Alexandria? Is the NY Times now going to have reports filed from Al-Maghrib and Pyidaungsu Myanma Naingngandaw? Will Travel and Leisure now be urging caution about travel to Al-Jaza’ir and Taehan-Min’guk, but suggesting alternative vacation spots in Ellas and Aotearoa?
    I’m all for local people using their local languages to call their towns, cities, rivers, mountains, etc., by whatever name they want. It’s when they want to control how non-local languages refer to those places, especially when those names have been settled in English (or French or Italian or Japanese or Chinese or whatever) for centuries that it raises my hackles.
    I’ll note only that the NY Times still writes “Yangon (formerly Rangoon)” and “Myanmar (formerly Burma)” because neither of the new names had ever before had currency in English until the creepy current military junta decided to change the names. The change from Leningrad to St. Petersburg didn’t and doesn’t require that disclaimer since for most of that city’s existence, as Sankt Petersburg, it was known in English as “St. Petersburg”.
    Am I coming across as a crackpot? Do I now have to talk about my swell weekend in Venezia or how my ski trip to Schweiz was the best ever or how I researched early Christian texts in Halab over my summer vacation?
    If it hasn’t been clear already, I think the use of Mumbai and Chennai (and Yangon and Myanmar) IN ENGLISH is a total crock of, dare I say it?, political correctness gone nuts in the service of right-wing extremists.

  10. Arne, my man, you’re preachin’ to the choir. Follow my “skeptical” link in the post and you’ll see I’ve been grumbling about this for a long time (and see this post, with its link, as well). But don’t complain about Nancy’s e in “Gujerat,” because that’s exactly the kind of traditional English spelling you and I like. As a matter of fact, it’s slowly evolved from the original “Goozerat” (under which delightful rubric it’s listed in Hobson-Jobson) to “Gujerat” to the current Sanskritically correct form. If the process goes any further we’ll be writing it in Devanagari (or rather the Gujarati variant thereof, without the “washing line”).

  11. raman madramuthu says

    Chennai is a name not attached to the city. Insted they should have taken the name from the most important temple in te city Srirangam and named the city Rangalore. (The city lies on the same axis as Mangalore and Bangalore and could even form an ecomomic alliance with them attracting IT investment, etc.

  12. I was somehow under the impression that “Madras” came from “Madre de Dios” in the parlance of early Portuguese voyagers to India? Can someone enlighten me on whether this has any credence?

  13. No, there was a village called Madraspatnam before any Europeans showed up; it may be from madrasa ‘Islamic school.’ (See the quoted article above for more possibilities.)

  14. Andrew Dunbar says

    This article inspired me to look up the Tamil script for the words “Chennai” (சென்னை) and “Madras” (மதிராஸ்) and add them to Wiktionary and Wikipedia.
    On Wikipedia someone asserted that “Madras was always known as Chennai in Tamil” and deleted the Tamil script for the former name on that basis. Is this actually true or is it more likely to be political in nature?
    Andrew Dunbar.

  15. Political, and it burns me up to see people subordinating knowledge to politics. I had thought Wikipedia was relatively free of that kind of thing.

  16. Thina Arthanathan says

    “Tamil is full of Sanskrit loan-words, though the politicians hate to admit it”
    Posted by: Nancy at June 13, 2003 11:34 PM
    I wonder how much Tamil you know?

  17. And then there’s Dublin.

  18. Michael Farris says

    About 20 years ago I was doing a linguistic field methods class and did Tamil as my outside language.
    My consultant always referred to Madras as Cennai (IIRC realized as [sen(n)ai])*. Also both he and his wife answered “how do you say the name of your country?” with Tamil Nadu [tamil/L naaDu] (and they used the English India [iNDiya] for the name of that entity rather than Bharat or Parat).
    Again, my unpopular opinion is that accepting local names (spelled and pronounced in accordance with local custom/habit/desire) as part of the price native speakers pay for English popularity. (I’m much more accepting of renaming toponyms than the replacement of the perfectly acceptable ‘tidal wave’ with the awful ‘tsunami’ for no good reason whatsoever).
    *The phonology just about killed me. I had just enough input from my consultant’s wife to completely screw up all my careful analyses of the consultant’s phonemic system (or systems – basically there’s at least two radically separate phonological systems that operate simultaneously in Tamil, at least the morphology and syntax was pretty straightforward).

  19. David Bliss says

    Excuse my butting in but surely it is unimportant (to English) what the locals of any town call it?
    Unless I am speaking Italian I do not call Florence Firenze, nor Rome, Roma. So in Italian these cities can be called anything – in English they would stay Florence & Rome. Just as the capital of the PRC is Peking.

  20. I agree with you, but clearly a lot of people don’t.

  21. I basically agree, but I’d like to add that this position should involve patience and comprehension effort toward an interlocutor who may not know the transcription of his country’s toponyms in your language: a Chinese friend of mine had a very hard time getting used to the fact that “Niujin” and “Jianqiao” were one and the same with “Oxford” and “Cambridge”. Similarly, I’d never blame a Greek for not understanding that “Guangzhou” is the place s/he knows as “KantOna”.
    However, it should not be so difficult to take the little time required to teach those things (starting with those Western journalists who wonder why “Pékin”s name was “changed” into Beijing), hence eliminating some very pernicious elitism. One has only to aknowledge that intelligibility and communication on an equal ground are worth it (missionaries and internationalist sowshalists have been aware of that for a long time).

  22. (Before you accuse me of elitism, the LKJ patois is due to spasm-filter. From “Di Good Life”:
    Sowshallism is a wise ole shepad
    im suvvie tru flood
    tru drout
    tru blizad…

  23. I agree with you, up to the point where you start talking about “pernicious elitism,” which in my opinion is a stretch when we’re talking about people liking forms they’re used to.
    As for sowshalism, 1) I’m an LKJ fan myself, and 2) I’m damned if I know what to do about that particular annoying spamword — why did they have to pick such a normal combination of letters? Why not Ciaxliqs or something? I got rid of about a hundred names clogging my Blacklist by replacing them with those six letters, but now my commenters have to jump through hoops. Sorry, all.

  24. jasmine arul sangeerthana says

    as i heard the radio programmes from my childhood day-i’d like to work in the career.i’v been the stage singer from 1995 in the light music orchestra.if any pls help me for the cnt num is 09840587259.
    ur’s faithfully

  25. Siganus Sutor says

    Language Hat : « (or rather the Gujarati variant thereof, without the “washing line”). »
    I’ve heard people referring to the Arabic script as “noodles” but so far I had never noticed the expression “washing line”. It describes fairly well the main particularity of the North Indian alphabet, particularity that has made some Hindus of the diaspora who can no longer read Hindi in devanagari write say invitation cards or banderoles with a “modified” Latin alphabet looking very sanskritic indeed.
    In at least one country with a large part of the population being of Indian descent, “Chennai” and “Mumbai” have been swiftly endorsed, without anyone questioning the name change (at least in public). Moreover, some local militant groups seem to have been pleased by this “victory” and politicians usually playing the ethnic card have seized this opportunity to be seen as good Hindus, good Tamils or good “Bombaï” (as, funnily enough, persons of Marathi origin are also known there).

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