17 September 2011

It's important to call people by their proper names...

Or at least the names they like being called. It's simple bad manners to do otherwise. The same principle applies to where they're from.

I'd a fleeting and annoying exchange with Louise Mensch on Twitter the other day, where she, in connection with this article, had said, 'Also, of course, Eire has its own legal code. I don't know if phone hacking is legal in Eire, or if there is a public interest defence there.'

Seemingly, there isn't, but sighing to see any politician making such a basic blunder elsewhere in what she said, I responded: 'When speaking English, Louise, it's normal to call the country Ireland,' and pointing her to article 4 of the Irish Constitution, which says:
'The name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland.'
'Since I lived in Dublin,' she replied, 'I've always thought of it as Eire, plus, four letters is more tweet-friendly.'

I conceded the latter point, but thought her main claim absurd, and said so: 'Bizarre. I'm from there and have never once heard anyone in Ireland ever call it that, save when (rarely) speaking Irish.'

At which point someone else weighed in with 'No one in Ireland calls it Eire you ridiculous woman!'

I always find it baffling that English people will sometimes do this when talking of Ireland. I've never noticed them doing it for other countries -- even the most pretentious of them will rarely talk about visiting Deutschland, España, Italia, Hellas, Suomi, Sverige, Nederland, Česko, Polska, Magyarország, Helvetica, or Danmark. They invariably call those countries by the English versions of their names, save on those rare occasions when they're speaking German, Spanish, Italian, Greek or whatever.

All else aside, if Mrs Mensch is going to play this game she should do so consistently, so that instead of saying 'Since I lived in Dublin I've always thought of it as Eire,' she should say, 'Since I  lived in Baile Átha Cliath I've always thought of it as Éire'.

So, basic things to remember: 
  • If you're speaking Irish, say Éire.
  • If you're speaking English, you should call the country 'Ireland', because that's its name. 
  • If you're speaking English and want to distinguish the country called 'Ireland' from the island of 'Ireland', you should call the country 'the Republic of Ireland', this being its description in Irish law, if not the Constitution.
  • It's okay to call the country 'the Republic'; it is never okay to call it 'Southern Ireland' or 'the South', unless you want to appear politically and geographically ignorant*, as well as rude.
  • It's unwise to refer to Ireland as being part of 'the British Isles', as lots of people will get annoyed at this. Given that the term is simply a corruption of an erroneous ancient term, and that it no longer reflects the political reality it had during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many people find it both obsolete and offensive. Of course, you can use it if you want to come across as insulting and reactionary, but that's up to you.
And in return, I'll refrain from wasting everyone's time by calling the UK 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland' and shan't abbreviate it UKGBNI. I can't speak for anyone else, mind.

* Not least because the northernmost point of the Republic of Ireland is further north than Northern Ireland, and because there's not much more of Ireland north of Cranford Point -- Northern Ireland's southermost point -- in Northern Ireland than there is in the Republic.


Anonymous said...

Hang on a second. Your third bullet point. The country called Ireland includes the six counties referred to as Northern Ireland and is geographically identical with the island of Ireland.
The Republic of Ireland is a state within Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is not a country. It is a state.

Humphrey said...

"It's unwise to refer to Ireland as being part of the British Isles". Tell that to the BBC. They seem to love the term. Natural history is particularly bad offender.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I think the term 'country' is a bit wobbly. In the preamble to the Constitution the term country is clearly used in a way that identifies it with the island and its surrounding islands, but the other two uses of the term in the Constitution clearly identify it with the state. Given, however, that Republic no longer claims the North as part of the national territory, I'm not entirely comfortable about identifying the whole island as being one country.

It is, after all, arguable that Northern Ireland is a country in its own right, or that it's part of another country, that being the UK.

I do see your point though, and there are days when I take that view myself.

shane said...

I loved the post on the 'British Isles' and have bookmarked it for future reference. That term irritates me no end. (Although some English reactionaries love it, I have never heard anyone in Ireland use it.)

Anonymous said...

"It is, after all, arguable that Northern Ireland is a country in its own right, or that it's part of another country, that being the UK."

The UK is not a country, but a state consisting of 3 entire countries and part of another. It is solely a political entity. Whereas a country is never a mere political entity.
By what you say then, Ireland is no longer a divided country. So that's that problem solved. Well done!
And if you want to extend the argument we might as well say that Kerry is as much its own country as Dublin is its. And Derry and Dublin will never play in an All Ireland again, but in future all GAA games will be internationals. Except of course if we all becomes one European country, in which case etc. etc.
Its a bit like redefining marriage. And by the way, when are you going to write about that?

Anonymous said...

Just to follow through on a point your discussion made me ponder. The reason the meaning of country appears “wobbly” is because we are trying to view it as a legislated reality whereas in fact it isn’t. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t real. On the contrary, in a sense it is “realer” that a legislated reality. A state is a legislated reality. The Republic of Ireland and the UK were brought into being by legislative acts and they could be dissolved by legislative acts. But the being of Ireland predates legislation, although legislation may have after the fact been brought to bear to formalize the reality. And no act of legislation can dissolve a country.
Today many people, confused by a Liberalism that assumes that man may conjure into being or adapt any realm of reality other than the purely natural-scientific, believe that marriage is a legislated reality, whereas it is not. The reality of marriage, an ordering between a man and a woman that is intrinsically open to procreation, which is not simply the breeding of children, but the rearing of them in families as well, arose prior to and independently of acts of legislation, although legislative acts may subsequently have acknowledged and formalized the reality. To try to legislate a redefinition of marriage so that it no longer reflects the original reality does not change the reality, but merely confuses it.

Peter said...

The term British Isles serves as a practical expression for the collection of the UK, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the various Bailiwicks of the Channel Islands. Governments from all parts meet in "The Council of the Isles". In a loose sense Ireland is British as it shares a language and much culture with other parts of the isles and the populations are intermixed.

Sadly the English language has squeezed out the other languages such as Irish, Welsh and Jersey and Guernsey French. Perhaps the lack of linguistic identity makes it necessary to fret over the use of the term British.

Thanks for an excellent blog.

PaulW said...

But how does a country come into being and can its dimensions ever change?

The borders of Poland changed significantly after 1945. Is the current state of Poland something different from the country of Poland?

The UK is a state/country comprising three nations and a part of another.

Anonymous said...

I understood that the term British Isles was purely a geographical term. "British" and cognate terms are of celtic origin and refer to the celtic peoples that originally populated the island of Britain before invasion and settlement of England by the Angles and Saxons. Lyndarm. "British" and cognate terms are of celtic origin and refer to the celtic peoples that originally populated the island of Britain before invasion and settlement of England by the Angles and Saxons. Lynda

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It was originally a geographical term, Lynda, but an inaccurate one, in that the Greeks called these islands the Nessoi Prytannoi, in the belief that the islands were inhabited by a people called Priteni -- the same people the Romans later called Picts, and who in Ireland were called Cruthin. They hardly lived in Ireland at all, so there was no real sense in which Ireland was a Pictish isle.

The phrase fell out of use during the medieval period, and was only revived in the late sixteenth century, by English people at a time when England was flexing her muscles in Ireland.

In other words, the 'British Isles' was an inaccurate and little-used term prior to the seventeenth century, solely of geographical interest. After the 1707 Act of Union, the term 'British' began to become a popular word, and was one that was political by definition, such that for about two hundred years the term 'British Isles' reflected political reality in a way it had never reflected geographical reality.

It's simple, really. British Isles can serve as a practical expression, but you won't find it used as such in any documents jointly drawn up by the UK and Irish governments. They use other equally practical expressions. The term offends most Irish people, five sixths of whom would never describe themselves as British. They don't fret about the term. They dismiss it out of hand, and find the idea that they could be described as 'British' utterly meaningless.

courtney said...

I work abroad and a Dutch colleague described my Irish colleague as being fellow British and I told him that he was Irish and not British. But he asked me how then to describe inhabitants of our archipelago? And the only answer I could give him is to ask why we should necessarily be grouped together more necessarily than other neighbouring countries. His response was that (a) archipelagos aren’t just arbitrarily carved out territiories, its reasonable to want to collectively name the people who live on them and (b) Irish and British don’t seem that different from the view of a Dutchman anyway.

And he had a point. Even you admit there isn’t a better naming convention for our archipelago and its inhabitants at hand.

The word “British” was used to describe a political entity because it was already an established naming for the archipelago irrespective of whether it was commonly used or not. OK, it might be that the Roman reasoning wasn’t the greatest, but I’m sure there’s a lot of names and words derived from classical culture that might suffer in the same way.

And it does have a good pedigree, we have Pliny the Elder, when discussing the island of Britain (which he actually calls Albion, from the Greek):

"It was itself named Albion, while all the islands about which we shall soon briefly speak were called the Britanniae”

So the fact it became used after the act of union in a more political context can hardly be surprising. It made sense - especially in a time when classical culture was particularly respected.

Of course, its understandable that Irish people don’t want it used.

But lets be fair, its not really about whether it’s a good naming convention or not. Its about the contamination of the term by historical events, the politics of Irish self determination and identity and, importantly, the continued use of it to describe all that is associated with that rump entity that had previously administered the whole archipelago and is now formally known as the United Kingdom of etc.

So perhaps this should be the focus of Irish objection – i.e. that the UK stops using the term (British) because it no longer makes sense since Irish Independence and the UK no longer covers the “British Isles” in its entirety. This would be legitimate and so perhaps we need some suggestions to HM government…Maybe Ireland could mount a political campaign like the Greeks against the "Former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia".

Alternatively, and perhaps if Louise Mensch is reading your blog, she might suggest that if the Irish wish to use another word for the British Isles in the Irish language then they are welcome to, but otherwise its acceptable for the English to carry on using the traditional English naming convention?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

I think what the British call the Irish among themselves is basically their own business, but if they're addressing Irish people or expect their words to be heard or read by Irish people, then it's prudent to use words that won't offend them.

I don't buy the Dutch arguments, I'm afraid, not least because there's no obvious border between the Netherlands and Germany, the Rhine pretty much defines both countries, and Dutch is a dialect of German; would he be okay with being described as German? After all, there's not really that much difference to an outsider...

(I heard someone once dismiss the Dutch as Frogs with Clogs. Harsh, and wrong, but it does show how outsiders often don't appreciate differences.)

You're right, I think, to say the issue is about historical contamination. At a governmental level this is accepted, I think; you won't find the term used in official intergovernmenta, or EU documents. The issue is culture, I think, and this is why I think it just comes down to manners.

I talked about this a bit in the old post on the subject. Very old...

courtney said...

Yes, it’s a fair point that we should avoid offending people when we can. But the case of the British Isles is a little different because there isn’t really an alternative as you point out.

And can’t it also be reasoned that people from the UK might have more grounds to be offended by the Irish position than the Irish have to take offense in the first place? After all, this is a naming convention that dates back to antiquity and the Irish aversion to it is primarily based on a desire to disassociate themselves from the UK and its people?

I think the Irish have stronger grounds for offense in the continued use of the term British by the UK in the context of it being the “British State”, which could be argued as being suggestive of continued pretensions to a UK claim over the whole of Ireland.

As for your point about the Dutch colleague, yes it answers his second point (although Dutch, if we really want to consider it a German dialect is so distinct its incomprehensible to Germans unlike Irish English compared to British English. And we can point to various other differences between the Dutch and the Germans to go with this too) but it doesn’t address his first. The fact is, the British Isles is an archipelago and it’s reasonable to have a naming convention for such a distinct geographical entity, and yes, even for the people who live there. Perhaps the answer is simply to grimace when you hear it used and wait for Scottish independence to consign the term British, in a political sense, to history.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It don't really think it's accurate to say it dates back to antiquity. Sure, in the strictest sense it did so, but the reality is that a phrase that can be translated 'British isles' existed in antiquity, was ditched for about 1,200 years, and then was revived by British writers at a time when they were claiming dominion over Ireland. Indeed, the term 'British Isles' proper appeared for the first time only in the writings of the same man who came up with the term 'British Empire' and who also wrote of the North Atlantic as the 'British Ocean'.

I think it's striking that people got along fine for more than a millennium without feeling the need to use a collective name for Britain, Ireland, and their respective coastal islands. How often, after all, is such a term needed?

If we must use a collective name for them, then I'm fine with 'the UK and Ireland,' 'Ireland and the UK', 'the West European Isles', 'the Anglo-Celtic Isles', 'the Isles'. I'm less happy with such clunky or problematic alternatives as 'the British Isles and Ireland', 'the Islands of the North Atlantic', the 'Northwest European Archipelago', 'the Pretanic Isles', or 'the Atlantic Archipelago', but at least all these terms manage the trick of not being politically loaded.

'Dialect' was the wrong word about Dutch, and one I'd meant to correct before posting, but it's certainly a Germanic language, and rather more obviously so than English is. And I fully appreciate that there are lots of differences between Dutch and German people, but such differences always become apparent once you look. If your Dutch colleague thought Ireland and Britain basically identical, well, all this really shows is how cursory his study has been.

courtney said...

Well there do seem to be old maps from the 16th century from Antwerp and Italy that have the British Isles mentioned in Latin and Italian respectively. So I think it has been used for longer than you suggest – although clearly you are going to see it used far more when the entire archipelago became united as a single political entity.

However, I do understand that the word British has been compromised and when that happens it is legitimate grounds to want a rethink on its use. But I'm hardly enamoured by your alternatives - names that reference the isles as peripheral parts of Europe are hardly going to go down well amongst telegraph readers, and references to anglo-celtic races doesn’t fit with multiculturalism.

Can I suggest we do what Arsenal FC or Bolton Wanderers did when they moved into their new grounds, and sell the naming rights?

I think the “Reebok” Islands fits rather well. It would not only raise some much needed cash (although how would we divide it?) but it would immediately give a rather more truthful insight into what is increasingly the defining aspect of what shared culture we really do have…