Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The country’s new English name just "doesn't go in my mouth," complains one government minister.
As of this Monday, the Czech Republic has an official new English name: Czechia. Freshly registered with the U.N. on July 11, the name Czechia won’t entirely replace the old one, but will now be the go-to name for the country when promoting Czech sports, culture or tourism. Think of it as a snappier alternative to the wordier official name, one that can fit legibly onto T-shirts, caps and beer steins without squishing up the writing.
The shortening makes some sense—not many country names reach five syllables without some shorter form taking hold for daily use—but it’s not going to be easy to make it catch. The biggest obstacle may be Czechs themselves. Because they seem to hate it.
In newly re-branded Czechia, it’s hard to find any passionate local advocates for the name, which is pronounced as two syllables (i.e. “Check-ya”). When the change was first agreed in April, even the country’s own culture minister sounded skeptical. “It's a difficult thing, but the name Czechia certainly does not sound melodious,” minister Daniel Herman told newspaper Aktualne, “but on the other hand, I do not know if there is any other alternative.” The country’s finance minister similarly complained that “the name doesn’t go in my mouth,” and many ordinary Czechs seem to agree. This online poll of Czech sport fans (admittedly not a source of great scientific value) showed 93 percent of respondents against the change. Meanwhile, ex-foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg suggested an alternative:
“What’s wrong with the traditional expression Bohemia, which was our country’s name for centuries? It’s a venerable title so why do we have to come up with something artificial?
There is no eye-roll exaggerated enough to convey the faux-naivety Schwarzenberg is affecting here. As he well knows, Bohemia won’t stand as a viable alternative to Czechia because that name only covers half the country. Czechia is made up of three regions, Bohemia, Moravia and much smaller Silesia (a trans-national region whose greater bulk lies in Poland). The Czech language term Český properly means “Bohemian,” the Bohemia region being known as Čechy, so even the accepted English term Czech isn’t not entirely free of the ghost of controversy. Calling the whole country Bohemia would be a bit like calling the whole of Germany Bavaria. At the same time, providing a full, tortuously hyphenated title that name-checked all the country’s parts—something like Bohemia-Moravia-Silesia—would be even worse.
As a compromise, the country came up with a Czech language alternative that’s been in wide use since the early 1990s: Česko. Versions of this name have been rolled out internationally—French Tchéquie, Spanish Chequia, Italian Cèchia and German Tschechien—but the English-speaking world has still stuck with the Czech Republic. Obviously this is unwieldy, and sounds like a description of what the country is rather than being a name in itself. In fact, English speakers I know who visit the country regularly have been shortening the name to “Czech” for some years, which is certainly shorter but also a bit like talking about “going to French for the weekend.”
Whether Czechia will ever take off as a name remains to be seen. Sports teams, at least, have already switched over. Czech competitors at this year’s Rio Olympics will all wear Czechia shirts, which were apparently also introduced for soccer players in this year’s European cup and for May’s International Ice Hockey Championships. I say apparently, because if you look at photos of these events, no country names at all are actually visible on the athletes’ shirts. Still, at least English-speaking supporters may now find chanting their team’s name a little easier.