Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 59: What's in a Name?

The Olympics are in full swing in Beijing, China. Not long ago, the proper name for the capital of China was Peking. Everybody says Beijing nowadays, and The UPI Stylebook and Guide to Newswriting declares Peking is no longer acceptable. But when did the change take place?

Professor Joseph Allen teaches Chinese literature at the University of Minnesota. He tells us that the Chinese never changed the name of their capital city. The change that happened in English has to do with a process called Romanization—that is, the transliteration of the sounds of Chinese characters into Latin letters.

Allen says that at the turn of the 20th century, scholars and diplomats working in China had numerous ways for Romanizing Chinese words: there was one method for French, one for German, one for English and so on. In the 1950s, after the People's Republic of China was established, scholars and diplomats instituted a new, uniform spelling system called pinyin. "At that time," Allen says, "the way that the name was approximated in letters was established as what we call now Beijing."

Although the transliterated name change happened in the 1950s, it took a while for English to adopt Beijing as the new and proper name. "Slowly the world has now all gone to this one system, the pinyin system," Allen says. "Almost all the world uses it."

There are remnants of the old name that persist in English; things like Peking duck, Peking Man, and Peking Opera. "I've seen Peking Man written in English 'Beijing Man' a few times," Allen says, "but most of those words are really now English words and they're going to stay that way, I would expect."

Interestingly, the Chinese retained the name Peking University, most likely because the renowned university's name is so broadly recognized throughout the world.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word Pekinese as an adjective to describe an inhabitant or native of Beijing, but Professor Allen says there are better ways to talk about the people of Beijing. "You would want to avoid [Pekinese] because most people think of Pekinese as the name of that dog," he says. "It's possible to say something like Beijinger, but I think most people say citizens of Beijing or Beijing citizens or something like that."

And when it comes to the proper pronunciation of Beijing, Allen gives an easy-to-remember tip. "It's -jing, as in 'Jingle Bells'," he says. "It's closer to the Chinese."

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary; UPI Stylebook and Guide to Newswriting.

Music from this Episode: "That's Not My Name" by the Ting Tings; "All Night Long (All Night)" by Lionel Richie.

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