Rebranding the Czech Republic: Czechia

Simplification of European place names continues as Prague government adopts a one-word name for the country.

Petr David Josek/AP
A vendor displays a t-shirt with the word 'Czechia' in a store in Prague, Czech Republic.

The end of the cold war and the breakup of the former Soviet Union had any number of totally positive consequences. The threat of mutual assured destruction through thermonuclear warfare receded considerably, for instance. And several place names became a lot simpler.

To start with the Soviet Union itself: News organizations, including the Monitor, revived the use of “Russia.” “The Ukraine,” a name derived from Russian or Polish words meaning “at the border,” lost its definite article. This made “Ukraine” seem more like a proper name and less like a common noun. (“Hey, if you’re not using it this weekend, can I borrow your Ukraine?”)

Byelorussia became Belarus. This spared people from figuring out whether to say “Byellow-Russia” or “Buy-low-Russia” (sounds like maybe a food co-op?). 

Farther west, reunification let us trade in East Germany and West Germany for one bigger country: Germany. 

About the same time, the European Community became the more concise European Union. For a body whose institutional instincts seem to run toward complication, this was an extraordinary simplification. 

Now another country on the redrawn map of Europe looks about to be renamed: An effort is under way in the Czech Republic to make Czechia the official short form of the country’s name in English. Czechoslovakia emerged as an independent republic from the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. It combined two main groups, the industrialized Czechs in the west and the more agrarian Slovaks to the east.

Its peaceful breakup in 1993 was called “the velvet divorce.” And to continue the domestic metaphor, we might say that the Slovaks got the house. Slovakia definitely sounds like a name, and the name of a country at that.

The Czechs, though, were left with “Czecho-,” which sounds a tad incomplete – an adjectival combining form that cries out for a sturdy noun to lean upon. 

And so they settled on “the Czech Republic” as their official name. But advocates for Czechia note that “Czech Republic” is a “political name” – like “the French Republic,” for instance; they want a “geographical name” for their country – a name like “France,” in other words. Political names are fine on a country’s postage stamps or the business cards of its diplomats. But citizens need a real name to shout from the stands when their national team takes the field. (Americans sing “America the Beautiful,” not “The United States the Beautiful.”)

Opponents have worried that Czechia is likely to be confused with Chechnya. Some suggest “the Czech Lands,” but that sounds provisional, like some real estate project that hasn’t gotten past the zoning board yet. Or possibly “Czechlands,” on a par with “the Netherlands.”

I’ll be glad to go with Czechia when it’s official. It’s shorter, and it “sounds nicer,” as Czech President Miloš Zeman has noted. 

Besides, it sounds like the name of a country. What’s not to love? 

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