Symbolism Versus Semantics – The Czech Republic Or Czechia: A National Name Calling

One of the more bizarre legacies of Eastern European communism concerns the Czech Republic or as a few still insist on calling it, Czechoslovakia. This was brought back to me not long ago when I met a gentleman whose surname was Czech in origin. When I asked him to confirm his ancestry, he nodded in the affirmative. He then proceeded to tell me that his ancestors had immigrated to the United States prior to World War I from “Czechoslovakia.” This statement left me rather bemused. Czechoslovakia did not exist at any point in European history until after the First World War. It was only a nation state for relatively short periods, from 1918 – 1939 and 1945 – 1992. Anyone immigrating to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the land now known as the Czech Republic would have had no conception of Czechoslovakia. Instead they would have stated as their land of origin an empire rather than a nation-state. In this case, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This would have served the purposes of bureaucratic paperwork when they entered the United States at Ellis Island.

Official paperwork aside, Czech immigrants to America might have known their homeland as either one of the two historically Czech regions, Bohemia or Moravia. As for Czechoslovakia, it lay in a future most had yet to imagine. An American of Czech descent can be forgiven for their confusion over the current name of the Czech nation. They are not the only ones suffering from confusion. That is because the nation’s name is still being openly debated today. Surprisingly, the citizens of the Czech Republic are divided on the subject.  The choices have now come down to either Czech Republic or Czechia. There is no third option, a la Czechoslovakia, for the simple fact that after the Velvet Divorce in 1993 that geopolitical concoction ceased to exist. It quickly became an anachronism, relegated to the dustbin of history. The Czech Republic became the new name for the Czech nation and that is where the controversy began in earnest.

Simply Stated - The Czech Republic

Simply Stated – The Czech Republic (Credit: High Contrast)

Crawling Slugs – A Nation Not By Any Other Name
Low level controversy over shortening the Czech Republic’s name simmered for years. Many Czechs, including some very famous ones, looked askance at using Czechia, which is an anglicization. In the Czech language “Czechia” is “Cesko” (pronounced Chessko). Among those opposed to the use of “Cesko” was the great Czech politician and playwright Vaclav Havel. He memorably stated that it conjured up images of “crawling slugs.” The consternation over naming conventions really took hold in 2016 when Czech leaders asked the United Nations to list Czechia as the official short version of Czech Republic. Their reasoning had as much to do with symbolism as semantics. It was thought that a shorter name would improve the nation’s image as it would be easier to remember and not lend itself to confusion. Not surprisingly, anecdotal rather than empirical evidence was offered as to how usage of the “Czech Republic” was hurting the nation’s image abroad.

The proposed change left many scratching their heads. What was so confusing about the name Czech Republic? Many Czech nationals and most foreigners found the issue difficult to understand. Admittedly, use of “Republic” in the name fails to distinguish it from many other nations. On the other hand, the Czech Republic was the only European nation in which “Republic” was part of the name’s common form. This anomaly set it apart from other European nations who eschewed their official name when it came to common usage. For instance, “Slovakia” is verbal shorthand for “The Slovak Republic”. By trying to impose Czechia on both nationals and foreigners, Czech leaders were following in the footsteps of their former Slovak partners.

Mouthful of Slugs - Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Mouthful of Slugs – Vaclav Havel was not a fan of Cesko

Image Is Everything – Cross Cultural Confusion
Unsurprisingly, the changeover to Czechia was met with thinly veiled resistance. Critics of the change found it rather ridiculous. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that much of Czech officialdom failed to embrace the change. This led to cross cultural confusion. For instance, the Czech Embassy in the United States continued to refer to their nation as the Czech Republic, while the U.S. State Department took to calling it Czechia. Such discontinuities were self-defeating, led to greater confusion than ever before and made the whole naming issue seem academic. It is little wonder that the Czech Republic continued to be favored by many in common and official usage, including by this writer. My reason for favoring the Czech Republic was just as absurd as the ongoing debate. From a personal and quite superficial standpoint, Czechia did not sit well with me precisely because it looks and sounds like Chechnya, that ill-fated Russian region. The word conjures up images of a war-torn land marked by violence, terrorism and ethnic tensions. Anyone who has spent time in the Czech Republic knows that it is the opposite of that image.

One argument for changing the name does ring true, it would put the Czech Republic in line with the many other nations which have both official and officially shorter versions of their name. The former being used for bureaucratic purposes, the latter in day to day conversation and the media. This often suits convenience. For instance, no one except bureaucrats ever refer to Germany by its yawn inducing official title of the Federal Republic of Germany. The Russian Federation is known to all except technocrats and legalistic types as Russia. To say otherwise makes one sound officious. The same was true of Russia’s immediate forebear. The Soviet Union was never termed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics except by diplomats, apparatchiks and ossified members of the Politburo. Official names are usually too long and ponderous. The Czech Republic is one of the rare few that is short and rather simplistic. Czechia is even more so, but it is at the disadvantage of being a latecomer to the national name game. As such it now enjoys co-official status, but not common usage.

Powerful Reminders – A Republic In More Than Name
Whether or not one agrees with the many Czechs who think Cesko sounds less than desirable, it is hard to disagree with the assertion that it has too much in common with the Czecho of Czechoslovakia. Most Czechs would rather forget the bad old days of totalitarianism. Anything that serves as a reminder of that time is anathema to an overwhelming majority of the Czech population. Today they live in a republic of which they take great pride. Maybe that is why so many of them prefer to clearly and unequivocally state the Czech Republic as their nation’s name.

 

3 thoughts on “Symbolism Versus Semantics – The Czech Republic Or Czechia: A National Name Calling

  1. The argument that “Czech Republic” is too long and cumbersome fails when consider the “Dominican Republic” Czech Republic is 4 syllables, while Dominican Republic is 7. I have never heard anyone complain that Dominican Republic is too long!
    Czech slang side note: Česká = Bohemia only, Česko = all of Czech Republic

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