This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Nuts and Bolts: exonyms.

Here's a dashing sort of a word: exonym.

Can't you smell the excitement, danger and strangeness of it?

I think it must be the exo that does it. As in exocet, exotic and exoskeleton.

(Exocet, as in the missile, doesn't actually have anything to do with the exo in the other words - rather sweetly, the missile is named  after Exocoetus volitans, aka the flying fish, but, hey, it still sounds really smart, doesn't it.)

So what's an exonym? Well, it's that increasingly rare thing, the version of a place name used only by foreigners. Londres, the French form of London, is an example.

Here in England the trend is for us to give up using exonyms. We've lost Peking, for instance, which we now call Beijung; Bombay, which has become Mumbai; and Cologne, which is increasingly becoming known as Köln.

We're sticking firmly with pronouncing the s at the end of Paris, though, because any Englishman pronouncing Paris in the French way will be despised by absolutely everyone.

I do not understand this.

But should we say Basel or Basle? Well, we used to say Basle, and now usually we say Basel. I do not understand this, either. As it happens, the French name for the town is Bâle, and the Romansh name is Basilea.

It's when the English go to Wales that things get really strange, though. I can see why the town of Yr Wyddgrug is usually called Mold by most English people; but surely there's no excuse for Abertawe's being called Swansea, and Mongomery Trefaldwyn.

Though, come to think about it, Swansea is a lovely name.

Word To Use Today Or Perhaps Not: an exonym. Munich's still used round here most of the time instead of Mönchen, and we still talk about Naples, Rome, Milan and Venice.

All places worth talking about.

Exonym comes from the Greek words for outside of and name.


  1. The problem with even trying to use the native pronunciation is, as you rightly point out, it's rarely well received and is a fast-track to people thinking you're a pretentious pedant (the voice of experience here!).

  2. Yes - we have to wait for the BBC to do it first, and then we can follow suit.

    I do rather hope, though, that the Beeb don't start calling Bangkok Krung Thep Maha Nakhon!

  3. Yes, I will go on saying PARISSSS in English. Like the word exonym though!