Wednesday, September 16, 2009

My Father Was a Wandering Aramean

Inkspot's mother-in-law is a Bessarabian Warshawski, not to be confused with the frightful Ludlow Warshawskis.

"Bessarabia" set me thinking about names that linger after the places that once claimed them have moved on. For those of you who weren't condemned by a rash choice of university course to study the meanderings of East European borders, Bessarabia was a province of Wallachia and the Empires both Ottoman and Russian that played a walk-on role in Greater Romania before vanishing back into the Soviet wings in 1940.

It lurched onto the international stage as an independent country in 1991 only to topple over the footlights into the orchestra pit, where most of it remains today. One county - Bolgrad - is still touring with Ukraine, and another has struck out on a solo career as the proudly rogue state of Transdniestria, of which more later.

Still never heard of it? That's not surprising, as the Bessarabians decided to ditch their good old name and opt to call themselves "Moldova" instead.

I can understand why "Bessarabia" no longer appealed:

  • The history associated with the name was grisly;

  • It reminded the locals of their erstwhile Jewish neighbours and their annoying dance craze; and

  • Anywhere called "Arabia" is suspect these days, whatever fancy adjective you put in front of it.

    • But there are problems with "Moldova" too. Not only is it already the name of the adjacent province in Romania, but Bessarabia/Moldova was part of that very same province in 1918-1940. Doesn't strike me as a sign of self-confidence or imagination if you borrow the name of the next parish along. Nor has the fancy new name brought the Moldovans much luck.

      What it has done, however, is give the Romanian province of Moldova the chance to reclaim the far superior monicker of "Moldavia". This is what the Soviets called Bessarabia/Moldova from 1940 to 1991, when the name came up for grabs again. "Moldavia" sounds like a real country, as it has the tell-tale "ia" ending that marks out exotic lands ruled by princelings with caddish uniforms.

      It also sounds like "Moravia", a real place that you might actually want to visit, and this gives the low Romanians a chance to lure yet more tourists to their twilit land of roadkill cuisine.

      ">Transdniestria", a dangling bacon rind of Russian arms dumps, war criminals and lumpy women in knitted berets, lacks the audacity to call itself "The Soviet Union", as it dearly would love to, and missed the chance to claim "Bessarabia".

      Instead it has chosen a name that emphasises where it is not, not what it is. "So who are you lot then?" sighs the weary UN admissions mandarin. "Can't say, but I'll tell you where we're not - we're not in the River Dniester. We're beyond it!"

      "Jolly good," says Sir Tarquin, steering the Representative from Tiraspol towards the Sub-Carpathian Ruthenians, Cisalpinians and Sahrawis of the West, all playing with glitter and spittle at the special-needs table.

      "Jordan" dropped the "Trans" as soon as it became a kingdom, and Transylania only won the endorsement of demented Nipponese squirrels when it rebranded itself Sylvania. Wise moves from countries going places, while Transdniestria can't even persuade anyone to spell it right:

      You will find "Transnistria", "Trans-Dniester", "Dniester Republic", "Pridnestrovie" or - my favourite – "Unităţile Administrativ-Teritoriale din Stînga Nistrului". The gang of onion-breathed spivs who run the place prefer Pridnestrovie or Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republicto be posh. These people are not doing themselves any favours.

      Africa, the continent that gave us the Nigerian bank scam, shows these blunt-fingered Slavs how it should be done. Newly-independent colonies were eager to shake off the dreadful titles various moody explorers had given them. Rhodesia was named after an ill-favoured invert, the Gold Coast practically screamed "Come and despoil us, please!", and you somehow feel that the malarial Haut Commissaire who came up with "The French Territory of Afars and Issas" wasn't putting his heart into it.

      So the plucky young kleptocrats gave notice of their relaxed, marimba-influenced attitude to the property of others by appropriating the names of more edifying countries located some distance away in either space or time. Most daring of all was Comrade Nkrumah of the Gold Coast.

      The historical Ghana Empire was much further north than his new state, but so generous was Nkrumah's pan-African spirit that he even managed to become president of an entirely different country - Guinea - once he'd spent all of Ghana's gelt.

      A prime example of a country that got it wrong was Persia. A cloddish Cossack colonel ousted the agreeably sybaritic Qajar dynasty in the 1920s and decided that racialism was the next big thing, so he renamed that perfumed land "Iran", as in "Aryan". Reza Shah seemed not to know or care that the neighbouring country was already called "Iraq", thereby sowing confusion among sub-editors at the BBC house magazine Ariel for some time to come.

      Iraq itself, of course, once gloried in the title "Mesopotamia", but that didn’t really work in Arabic and Wise King Feisal wasn’t an Oxford man. Saddam Hussein, George Galloway, the godly but unlettered President Bush and thousands of bearded maniacs have ensured that the name "Iraq" is now almost exclusively associated with beastly behaviour, so I suggest that Mr Talabani and his chums in Baghdad should simply relaunch the country as "Persia".

      Bingo! They persuade Notting Hill types to buy their carpets and annoy the haughty Tehranis with one stroke of the legislative scimitar.

      In the same over-amplified soundbox of ancient grievances, those silver-tongued charmers in Israel just can't stop their neighbours wishing violent death upon them. I propose that they should drop not only the name but all geographical denominators and simply appropriate the title "Nelson Mandela".

      Let's face it, the old boy won't be needing it for much longer, and Friday Prayers won't go down so well with Tristram and Jocasta Trustafarian when they echo to the Federation of Conservative Students' chant of "Death to Nelson Mandela!" C'mon Mr Netanyahu, it's not as if you've got any bright ideas of your own, is it?

      And it doesn't stop there. No one takes Poland seriously.Polnische Wirtschaft,"Dude, Where's Your Country?", worst alphabet in Europe, noblemen with no underpants, pickled cabbage, charging down Panzers on horseback, madder-than-average women - it's not a good image. So why not take the long-vacant name of "Prussia"?

      After all, Poland at the time of writing (1051 gmt, 16 September 2009) is located on much of historic Prussia. And say what you like about that Millwall of the German Empire, no one found it in the slightest bit amusing when the Junkers came a-calling.

      Last and as usual least comes our own beloved Wales. "Wales? is dat the big fish or dem singing bastards?", as a New York cabbie once asked Sir Geraint Evans en route to the Met. I tell you now that we are going nowhere fast if we continue to call ourselves "Nancy Latinate foreigners" in Old High German and risk being confused with Moby Dick - by which I mean the marine leviathan, not the Cornish porn star.

      We could insist that everyone calls us “Cymru”, but that would put us back on the blunt-scissors table with Myanmar and places with names that just don't work in other languages. We could go all Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and resurrect "Cambria" and "Gwalia",but my preference is for a stunning bit of thievery.

      Just as that gobshite Bono reclaimed Helter Skelter from Charles Manson, when it had belonged to The Beatles all along, I propose that we rename Wales "Britain". The United Kingdom doesn't use the title much since Lady Thatcher was gently steered off to the Whisky Transfusion Clinic, and the English seem to have dropped it in favour of the original Beserker "Ingerland".

      For one thing, it'll be difficult for Unionist Tories and Kinnockites to refuse to be "Backing Britain", and since when did anyone "Brit" on a bet? Lovely.


      Francis Sedgemore said...

      ‘I propose that we rename Wales "Britain"’

      Tomorrow we shall start by taking Londinium ("Llundain", in the ancient tongue), immediately following which we shall chain Boris Johnson to a white bicycle, and place both of said items on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. In perpetuity.

      Antony Gormley dare not challenge us, for we are the Cymru Rouge!

      Anonymous said...

      I think it only fair to point out regarding Poland and Prussia, that Poland's current borders are near identical to its original borders when Poland first came into existence under Mieszko I, before the Teutonic Knights turned up on the scene.

      Gorilla Bananas said...

      Isn't Wales essentially a ghetto created by the Anglo-Saxons for the defeated and dejected Romano-Britons? You've got my support if you go back to wearing togas and speaking Latin rather than playing rugby and singing, which has the whiff of druidism about it.

      Mark Sanderson said...

      Moldovans? Bessarabian. I rather think I like the sound of being a Bessarabian. I remember being at school when loads of European countries changed names. My atlas, with all its Yugoslavia and Soviet Union was pretty much redundent after that.

      Unknown said...

      I'd prefer us to use another, nicer, no longer used name if we have to stop being Wales...

      What's wrong with Ceylon? Much nicer than Sri Lanka! We'll put it to good use if they don't want it, look you!


      Charming post - dare I ask where all this leaves the Shleswig-Holstein question?

      Regards from deepest Rothergavenny,


      Gyppo Byard said...

      Sadly, "The Federated Malay States" was dropped as a name because it was colonial-era and British, despite actually being a better description of how the country works than the present name "Malaysia". "Upper Volta" morphed into "Burkina Faso" because they were tired of coming way down alphabetical lists, and Indonesia missed a trick not calling itself by its indigenous name of "Nusantara", which literally means "the islands in between".

      Brit said...

      An alternative strategy for Wales could be to follow the leads of those cybersneaks who register URLs but one letter different to a popular organisation, in order to capitalise on typos, dyslexia and declining standards of education.

      Thus, in order to attract/trick international tourists, Cymru could becym:

      - Londen
      - The United Slates of America
      - Saint Kitts and Nevis and David
      - Disneylland

      No Good Boyo said...

      Ffrancis, fe ddaw y dydd. Gormley and his dad Jo are welcome to join the Rouge if they embrace Cymreictod in the form of Helen Mary Jones. On vi-deo.

      Simon, I find it worrying that Poland has wandered back to its original place in the firmament. When stars and Slavs realign it usually means that the dead will rise to wreak vengeance on the living and most forms of brassica. Keep us informed.

      Congrats on the Plaid gig, by the way. I hope our boy Elfyn Llwyd is setting the night alight with his Rhydymain rhetoric.

      I've always been a partisan of making Latin the second official language of Wales, GB, and dismiss complaints that togas are unsuited to our climate. That's what nettle knouts were invented for.

      As for the ghetto, we made it ourselves. The Celts will sense escaped back to France and had a good time inflicting the vigesimal counting system on the Latin locals.

      Good point, Emerson. The name "Yugoslavia" is up for grabs. Perhaps Kosovo would really like to piss the Serbs off...

      Welcome, Roberta. I shall give my view on Schleswig and Holstein at a latter point. It requires deep thought.

      I was going to say that the Burkinabe deserved a place at the dunce desk for dropping the hopeless Upper Volta for something even worse, but you make a good point. They get to sit next to Burundi rather than Uuraguay, a relatively normal country condemned to ignominy by allowing the idle reader to mistake it for Latin-American-violent-cliché-theme-park Paraguay.

      xerxes said...

      Boyo, thanks for the plug but now I have to make my peace with those frightful bounders from Ludlow.

      Damn, that champagne bottle's empty. Which brings me to another point. Ladies, gents, how effective is the following line: "Please come home with/marry me, if you don't I'll go home with/marry someone much worse, look, here's her phone number, I'm ringing her right now"?

      No Good Boyo said...

      The Reeseses are all cads and Dic Siôn Dafydds, Inky, from Goronwy to this bouffant buffoon. Discard him and marry someone else.

      Gadjo Dilo said...

      Boyo, you've managed to teach me still more about the country where I live (kinda) - and this is even after reading Memoirs of An Anti-Semite, which you put me on to, and which was excellent, cheers. "Besser" in German (and very possibly in Yiddish too) of course means "better", so Bessarabia would be "Better than Arabia", which is a worthy aspiration in any language. In fact Israel might consider it... no, perhaps better not to rock the boat.

      No Good Boyo said...

      My own reading, Gadjo, is that it derives from the Yiddish "Bissle Arabie", or Arabia Minor. It has all the anti-Semitism, mad religions and micro-tonal folk music without the decent weather, cuisine and hip-gyratin' womenfolk.

      rubbish said...

      Do you know that if you google countrys beginning with W, Wales doesn't appear at all?

      Kevin Musgrove said...

      There was a nice point in the early nineties when my atlas suddenly came back into useful purpose. Ditto my stamp album.

      I always liked the word 'Bessarabia.'

      Perhaps Wales could appropriate "Thuringia" or "Thurn und Taxis," which would wind up the hire car drivers in Hereford.

      xerxes said...

      Boyo, is that anti-Rees slur an ethnic one or just an ordinary one? Enquiring minds need to know. Anyway, thanks for the relationship advice, usually I get this from Carlos at coastal poker and his is a bit intellectual. In fact, it's even girly, I think he gets it from his wife who, tbh, is out of his league.

      No Good Boyo said...

      Rubbish - I checked and you're right! Perhaps the world has woken up to my idea already. Excellent.

      Inky, the Reeses are not an ethnic group, despite the lobbying by Mathonwy Rees ap Rees to have his council house in Blaenau Ffestiniog recognized as an Okrug of the Dagestani Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (see Inland Revenue vs Rees ap Rees, 1985; Gwynedd County Council vs Rees ap Rees, 1985 et al). It's just I've never met a decent one.

      Those who spell their name the proper, vowel-free way are fine - Merlyn Rhys, Yr Arglwydd Rhys, etc.

      Thurn & Taxis is a classy name that raised The Crying of Lot 49 to the status of readability, Kev. It fails the name test by having two elements. Look at the rubbish (no offence, Rubbish) that's gone before - Bosnia & Herzegovina, England & Wales, Affars & Issars.

      If you can't be bothered to sort out who's boss through a civil war, don't expect other countries to waste time on you - that seems to be the judgement of history.

      Crafty hyphens dont' fool anyone either. Tschüß, Austria-Hungary.

      No Good Boyo said...

      Breaking news: The estimable Snoopy the Goon has counterproposed "Tutu" as a name for Israel, having highlighted some problems with calling that happy land "Nelson Mandela".

      Read all about it:

      (Sorry, still haven't worked out how to embed hyperlinks in comments)

      Gyppo Byard said...

      So my suggestion of "Israel and Palestine" hasn't been adopted?

      They didn't even write back, you know...

      Gareth Williams said...

      I think the Welsh suffer from Celt-envy in relation to Ireland as they have: proper modernist writers, don't-fuck-wid-me attitude to the English, wealthy and numerous diaspora, international victim status without actually being victims any more, etc.
      I propose rebranding Wales 'The Kingdom of Ireland' which would actually trump the paddies as they can't really be royal any more despite it being a good earner. The first king? All hail King Bono. I'm sure there's a precedent in the Mabinogion.

      Gareth Williams said...

      I think the Welsh suffer from Celt-envy in relation to Ireland as they have: proper modernist writers, don't-fuck-wid-me attitude to the English, wealthy and numerous diaspora, international victim status without actually being victims any more, etc.
      I propose rebranding Wales 'The Kingdom of Ireland' which would actually trump the paddies as they can't really be royal any more despite it being a good earner. The first king? All hail King Bono. I'm sure there's a precedent in the Mabinogion.

      Francis Sedgemore said...

      "All hail King Bono"

      Good choice. Kings are for the killing.

      Kevin Musgrove said...

      Bono for Martyr-King is a good option for sure.

      For a king in the traditional sense, the Electors Of The Welsh would probably settle it on the first bus driver they bump into on the way to Llanberis.

      No Good Boyo said...

      Nice try, Gaw. Our historic attitude to our Hibernian cousins is summed up by remembering that the dismissive plural suffix "-od" is applied to the following groups - animals, women, witches, Frenchmen and the Irish ("Gwyddelod") - and even the French are usually granted a grudgingly human "-wyr" ending nowadays.

      Envy came in around the time of Ireland's economic "sorpasso" in the 1980s ("An Soirpaís"), when they began to beat Wales at dental work and coal production, but we're back to being ignorantly smug again.

      This blog is very fond of Bono, as you (bon)know, and would welcome him, as Francis and Kevin suggest, much as Summerisle welcomed that Christian copper.

      "Reverence the sacrifice."

      Anonymous said...

      As one currently abiding in the erstwhile Kingdom of Brynaich in that region of Britain known as "yr Hen Ogledd" (many thanks to Gareth, by the way, for providing me with a seventh century GPS system) I totally concur with the need to "rebrand" Wales "Britain". But that should only be a part of a greater claim on the rest of the Republic of [the] Island [of Britain], combined with a demand that the contemporary German and Norwegian inhabitants relocate without delay to the Friesian Islands, Scandinavia and points eastwards. This will allow us to roll out the South Walian knowledge economy across the country as a whole, in the process establishing the Porth-Llwynypia axis as the new European financial hub.

      Unknown said...

      No Good Boyo said...

      Class pix. Elis. Brings it all back. I spent a happy day stuck on the Trans(d)ni(e)str(i)an side of the Moldovan border watching horses and dogs make friends. Warmed the heart.

      Snr de Gales, I was thinking of highlighting the quadripartite division of the historic Cambrizone into Cumbria, Cambria, Cornwallia and Brittany, but thought I'd be wasting my time. Thanks for proving me wrong, and croeso.

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