Posted by: Steve Vitek | April 25, 2012

On the Unfortunate Absence of the Word “Czecho” in the English Language

I can understand why one would need several words for the name of some countries, for example North Korea vs. South Korea, although locals obviously don’t call them by their official names among themselves, namely “The People’s Republic of North Korea” and “The Republic of Korea”, just like I am sure that the Congolese don’t refer to their country as The Democratic Republic of Congo, it’s simply Congo to them.

The locals in Papua New Guinea probably have just one word in their own language for the name of their country too. I am going out on a limb as I’m just guessing here, but I am pretty sure that Papua New Guineans don’t use three words to refer to their country among themselves either. Papua New Guineans reading this post, please feel free to shed light on this interesting issue.

I would like to point out in this context how sad and sort of absurd it is that there is no one-word term in English for Czech Republic, although Czechs can use the word “Česko”, which came into existence relatively recently in the Czech language, Germans can use the word “Tschechien”, although I remember that they used to call it “Tschechei” when I lived in  West Germany, the French can use the word “la Tchéquie”, the Japanese call it チェコ (cheko), and so on and so forth.

If the Congolese can use a single word “Congo” for their country in English, why can’t the Czechs come up with one English word for their country too? It makes no sense to me.

I think that the word “Czecho” would probably have worked just fine, except that the Czechs just didn’t have the nerves for it, maybe because it was too new or because it sounded too funny to them. Czechs are notoriously not very good at changing old established concepts that worked for a long time just fine.

Of course, Czechs are hardly the only people who simply will not change something just because it makes sense to do so. Why do Americans still have their feudalistic “Electoral College”? Let us remember that the Electoral College of the Holly Roman Empire was a device of the aristocracy to elect the king. Why don’t we change it now? Well, because it worked so well in the eighteenth century, of course. Why would we want to change something that worked so well back then? Just because it does not work anymore? In the words of Dick Cheney: “So?”.

But back to the non-existent word “Czecho”. I used to have an English friend in Prague in the late seventies, his name was Kevin and he was from Southampton, who referred to the western part of the country that was back then known as Czechoslovakia as “Czecho”, as in “unlike in England, in good old “Czecho” I can have a dinner with beer in a good restaurant for next to nothing”.

One additional benefit of using the word “Czecho” instead of Czech Republic would be that since it does sound kind of funny, it could be an impetus for English speakers to try to figure out where this country actually is, possibly even Americans.

The term “Czech Republic” leaves most Americans bored and unimpressed and most seem to think that it must be one of the former republics of the former Soviet Union, probably next to Tajikistan. My neighbor across the street thought that it was somewhere near Turkey. The girl who cuts my hair at “Great Clips” for instance, who is a high school graduate and quite intelligent although slightly overweight, has no idea where this country is.

I got so tired of trying to explain to people where it is that sometime, when I am in a combative mood, I tell people that I am from Bohemia.

I met two or three Americans who knew what I meant when I said that I was from Bohemia or a Bohemian. Incidentally, they all live in San Francisco. Nobody in Virginia or North Carolina that I met had any idea what I was talking about.

When Czechoslovakia was still a country, I met quite a few Americans who had no idea where that country was. I even met quite a few people here who referred to it as “Czechoslavia”. But unlike now, most people had a rough idea where it was before they started calling it “Czech Republic”.

Incidentally, many Japanese people don’t quite distinguish between “Austria” and “Australia”. Since it is just one additional syllable in their language (Austria is “osutoria”, and Australia is “osutoraria”), many are not sure which is which, although they do know where Australia is, of course, because it is almost next door to them, so to speak.

But very few people here in the US seem to know now where Czech Republic is, and I think that the principle reason for that is the fact that you have to use the word “republic” in the name of the country, which kind of makes it blend into the background of many other potential candidates.

If they still can’t come to an agreement on the Prague Castle about the word “Czecho” or “Czechia” which is also a possibility, an alternative would be to use an abbreviation consisting of no more than two letters.

Most people outside of England have no idea that the official title of the country is “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, since it is either called England, Britain, or UK, depending on your nationality and where you happen to be at the moment.

The locals here don’t call their country “The United States of America” either of course, except to make a nasty and sarcastic point about divisive politics. It’s either America or US. Not to mention that the official title of the country is a little bit too macho and misleading. Isn’t Canada in America too? And what happened to Central America and Southern America? Or was the name of the country chosen so that the rest of America could be united next? That would make sense then.

But back to the non-existent (yet) word “Czecho”. I think that as long as the Czechs insist on calling their country The Czech Republic and fail to offer a shorter and more reasonable version of the name in English, as even Americans and the Brits did centuries ago, such as “Czecho” or “CK”  or “CR” or something like that, roughly 80 percent of English speakers on this planet will continue to think that Czech Republic is probably one of the former republics of the Soviet Union, or maybe in Asia or Africa.

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Responses

  1. The term is used in spy novels, like LeCarre. The term sounds sort of 60′s Cold War to me (and my grandparents were from Okres Presov and I have been to both “Czecho” and “Slovakia”).

  2. It sounds fine to me.

    My neighbor across the street just told me that she thought Czech Republic was somewhere near Turkey. She has a Czech last name which means “cabinetmaker” in Czech but her husband did not know what the name meant and he was not sure about its origin.

    It seems to me that the Czechs have a lot of work ahead of them. They need something like the Czech version of Alliance Française or Goethe Institute. But who is going to fund it?

  3. I do not know Czech, so I ask your patience. Would it be possible to combine Zeme and Ceska so as to come up with something like Czechland (“as in” Finland)?

    My father’s relatives in and around Iowa City and Cedar Rapids all called themselves Bohemies or Bohemians and the language Bohemie or Bohemian. Most of the “old folks” had fled from the Austro-Hungarian repression and military conscription and referred simply to the “old country.”

    • “Land” would work in English but not in Czech. It would sound kind of like Deutschland, because “land” is a Germanic word. Czechs would not like it at all.

      What you need is an ending that would be acceptable both in English and in Czech. Czecho is ending-less, which is a problem, but after a while, I think that people would get used to it in both languages. Czechia would work too because it sounds Latin, which means that you don’t have to think about relatively recent historical events, as you would have to with a German or a Russian word.

      Bohemia is the Latin name for what is now Czech Republic after the name of the Celtic tribe that lived there when Romans discovered the area before the Slavs finally arrived and decided to stay there. According to legends, it was near a mountain, well, more like a hill, really, called “Říp”, which is not far from Prague. But because La Boheme has a different meaning in French, and also in Spanish, English speakers know usually only the other meaning of the word.

      And Bohemia would not work anyway because Moravia, which is a big chunk of Czech republic, is not a part of Bohemia. So Czechomoravia would be another one-word alternative. It’s not too long, it would make it possible to get rid of the word “Republic”, and the Czech version would be Českomoravsko.

      Why is nobody listening to me?

  4. I was excited when I saw the title of this post, because I’m currently reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré, and in it, Czechoslovakia (as it then was) is often referred to as “Czecho”. And, interestingly, it’s not only British intelligence offers who use this term, but also at least one Czech agent (though it’s possible he only uses it for the benefit of his British handler).

    So I thought my comment would make me look very well-read and cultured. But alas, another commenter called Susan beat me to it. Foiled again.

    On a side note, I love that you took time to point out that your hairdresser is slightly overweight. It’s these little snippets of dry humour that make your blog a joy to read.

    • She is actually a little bit more than slightly overweight but I saw no reason to point it out.

      • Better hope she doesn’t read your blog…

      • What I meant was that she looks kind of like Adele.

  5. Maybe she would take that as a compliment…?

  6. She would. Adele is her favorite singer. That’s why I made the comment … to blunt the impact of my unwise criticism of her looks.

    It’s all about personality, anyway, not about looks, right?

  7. Czechia reminds me of “Chequia”, which we sometimes use in Spanish. But we do not have a short form for the Dominican Republic…

  8. Most people don’t know where Dominican Republic is either for the same reason.

  9. That’s an interesting fact. Do you actually speak Czech? I remember working with lots of people from the Czech republic, one of them being my roommate at one point. I remember them saying things like, “You know, back in Czech…” or “In Czech, the beer is better than in the UK”, and wondering why they use an incorrect word for their own home country. Now I know.

  10. Yes, I speak Czech because I grew up there.


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