Kiev or Kyiv? Language to use when addressing Ukraine-related issues

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column in which the politician, diplomat, writer and wordsmith par excellence dissects words and language

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 24 Mar 2022, 6:27 PM

The tragic war in Ukraine continues, and the scale of the suffering and destruction there have got every section of the commentariat exercised. Even the linguists, at least the amateur ones, are frothing at the mouth over a number of Ukraine-specific usage issues we need to be aware of.

For example, beware of lazily referring, as so many have done, to “the Ukraine”. The use of the definite article (“the”) unwittingly lends credence to the Russian proposition that Ukraine is not a country but a territory, a part of Russia for ages, when it was referred to as “the Ukraine”— in the way that Lebanon used to be called “the Levant” when it was part of Syria. The name “Ukraine” actually means “borderland”, so calling it “the Ukraine” in English implies it’s just a territory that serves as Russia’s borderland, whereas calling it simply “Ukraine” is politically correct, since it honours the name as that of an independent entity. (In India, too, the British used to refer to “the Punjab” and “the Carnatic”, but we have dropped the article since each are now states of the Indian Union as Punjab and Karnataka.)

Similarly, using the spelling “Kiev” for the capital city is to give in to the Russian version of the name, which was in use from the days of the Tsars to that of the USSR. The Ukrainians spell it “Kyiv” in their language, and that’s the version we should honour. That may be a problem for restaurant menus that still sell “Chicken Kiev”, a popular dish around the world. But at least it can keep its name while spelling it differently. Other food items were not so lucky in wartime. During World War I, the popular dish called sauerkraut suffered a huge drop in sales in the US because, with a name like that, it was obviously a German dish, prompting restaurant owners in New York to rename it “liberty cabbage” (the old name resurfaced once hostilities had subsided). The same war saw calls in America to rename hamburgers (named after the German port city of Hamburg) as “liberty steaks”, which flopped, though rebaptising another popular food named for a German city, frankfurters, as “hot dogs” was more successful. When I served at the UN in New York during the Iraq war, Americans angry at France’s opposition to the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq clamoured to rechristen the ubiquitous French fries as “freedom fries”. They even did this on the menu of the Senate restaurant, but the silliness did not last. (No one pointed out that the French themselves took no national credit for the greasy food item, which, in French, is called “pomme frites” or simply “frites”, meaning “fries”, and not French at all.)

What next? Would bartenders start renaming the popular “Moscow Mule” as “Kyiv Mule”? What about “Russian salad”, which is not even Russian but a Belgian chef’s concoction? It would make no sense to call it a “Ukrainian salad” since it has even less connection to Ukraine than it does to Russia. But the passions of war do strange things to otherwise sensible people.

One dish that is already in trouble is Canada’s popular poutine, which many consider Canada’s truly national dish (move over, maple syrup!). It’s a preparation of potato fries, cheese curds and gravy, that’s guaranteed to clog your arteries and send your cholesterol numbers shooting up. But the Ukraine war has affected many restaurant-goers’ blood pressure first, and some are objecting to celebrating a dish whose name sounds distressingly similar to that of the reviled Russian President who ordered the invasion. What to do? One Canadian café thought it was being clever when it renamed the poutine dish on its menu “Vladimir” instead. That raised even more objections, and the café was abashed enough to change the name to its Ukrainian version, spelling it “Volodymyr”, in honour of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. But does that make any sense either, since poutine has nothing to do with either Russia or Ukraine anyway? Ironically, it turns out that the word “poutine” is derived from a Quebecois French slang word meaning “a mess”. That, I’m afraid, is exactly what the eponymous Russian President has created by initiating this war.

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