No, Franco is not alive today

October 8, 2017

Even in the worst Franco years I don’t remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on Sunday. If your government annuls your basic democratic rights and cuts off your freedom of expression, if it distracts and confuses public opinion with incendiary messages, what can you do but confront it? That’s why for me the time is up for Catalonia belonging to Spain. We must insist on a binding referendum to decide our future. Jordi Borrell Celades, head of sales at a chemical company based in Barcelona writing I the Guardian

In Catalonia we have seen how the EU does ‘democracy’. Why can’t Remainers see it too? Nigel Farage


Spain is facing its greatest crisis since the Tejero’s attempted coup in 1981. The images of civil guard hitting pensioners who were trying to vote have gone round the world. I have been following the UK media and I can see that Spain has been getting an awful press. Nicola Sturgeon, Jeremy Corbyn and Nigel Farage have all condemned the actions of Spain. Personally I think it was a massive mistsake to send the Civil Guard in. We live in era of soft power and social media in which images and videos can be transmitted in seconds. It is true as Peter Preston argued in today’s Observer that in an age of fake news we need to look into the reliability of the statistics. Apparently one of the pictures that went viral was actually from miners’ strike five years ago. Preston continues:

That woman who had all her fingers broken. She hadn’t. That six-year-old boy, paralysed by police brutality? It didn’t happen. Serious injuries on the day: just two.

Be that as it may it has to be said that the Catalonian government has understood the importance of soft power and getting your message across. But today I want to look at the bigger picture

What has made me increasingly angry over the last few days is the outrageous comparisons with the Spain of Franco.  Mr Borrell’s comment that even in the worst Franco years he could not remember violence as bad as that meted out by the police on last Sunday seems to reflect the tone of much of the coverage I have seen. Spain is democracy, an imperfect one. To give just one example Spain introduced gay marriage before the UK, the USA and Germany. The Spanish Civil War is often brought up, but people forget that Madrid and Catalonia were on the same side in this conflict. Franco bombed Madrid! It’s true that more of its politicians should be in prison. But that would also apply to Catalonian politicians who are no slouches when it comes to kickbacks.

What is happening in Catalonia is related to the global financial crisis and the subsequent rise of populist movement. This has seen the rise of the rise of radical parties both on the right and left. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. Curiously, as happened in the USA, Russia has been trying to destabilise the situation. Obviously, if there was no sense of dissatisfaction, such attempts would not be successful. It is curious to read articles in the Daily Mail where Brexit supporters attack the EU for not intervening in a sovereign state. Isn’t that what they what they are against?

España nos roba – Spain is robbing us is what you hear in Catalonia. Financial arrangements can always be negotiated. But when I hear that Catalonia pays more than it gets back, I shake my head. But this is perfectly normal it is the third richest region of Spain behind Madrid and the Basque Country. To complain about this is like France complaining about paying more into the European Union than it gets out.  In this sense there are parallels with the Lega Nord in Italy, who resent paying for the lazy southerners.

When I hear the term self-determination, I do get a bit nervous. It sounds like a wonderful idea. Woodrow Wilson wanted loads of it in the Treaties of Paris after WWI It didn’t turn out so well did it? Country borders are complex. Whenever you create a new state, within those states there are minorities. Territorial integrity is not something that should be thrown aside lightly; I admit I prefer stability. The fact that it is not easy to create a new state is a good thing. I had hoped in the 1990s that with the EU this kind of nationalism was waning.  How wrong I was! The backlash of the last few years has been sobering.

I also wanted to look at how most Spanish people have such a negative perception of last Sunday’s vote, many even compare it to a coup d’état. In the UK there is no written constitution, which allows a more flexible approach. Under the Spanish Constitution sovereignty rests with the whole of the Spanish people. You may criticise this but it is not undemocratic and this constitution was voted for in 1978 with a massive majority including in Catalonia itself. There are rules to be followed and the Govern has ridden roughshod over them. And I would like to know if the constitution of a newly independent Catalonia will include the right for self-determination within its borders

If Catalonia were to become independent, they would be out of the European Union. Even if Spain didn’t veto their membership, I think that other European countries, with their own potentially rebellious regions, would view an independent Catalonia with any relish whatsoever. It will certainly be an adventure. Robert Hardman, writing in the Daily Mail tried to play down the dangers:

Meanwhile, Catalonia is now being warned of the usual plagues straight out of the Remain camp’s Project Fear handbook.

Alas, I fear that the outlook for the Catalonian economy in the short and medium term at least is not great.  A number of banks and other companies have already decided to move their headquarters to other Spanish cities. If independence came, it could become would the last company to leave Catalonia, please turn out the lights? Reality is not optional. Of course we have seen how emotions can make people vote against their interests.

We are living in interesting times. I have to admit that I’m rather worried. This has been a massive political failure. The Spanish government has a delicate tightrope to walk. On the one hand they do not want to see constitutional order undermined, but if they are too heavy-handed there will be a powerful backlash in Catalonia. There will have to be some kind of negotiation. Maybe the constitution will have to be revisited But I don’t see the consensus for it. I’m a bit pessimistic. Many of the people in Catalonia who favour remaining in Spain, the majority still in recent polls, are the older generation. They will die off. The younger generation brought up (indoctrinated?) in a pro independence climate are going to be the majority. Will they be satisfied with greater autonomy?



Misleading or what?

June 17, 2017

This week Fox News finally dropped its fair and balanced slogan, which was introduced by the US channel’s founder, the late Roger Ailes, when he set it up in 1996. For a channel whose presenters have included Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck this is stretching it a bit. Trump’s favourite news channel now has a replacement is “Most Watched. Most Trusted.”

This got me thinking about misleading names and slogans. A quick search on the internet found the following:
• Flying lemurs are neither lemurs nor do they fly.
• Panama hats actually come from Ecuador, but came to be associated with the building of the Panama Canal.
• While dry cleaning may not involve water, it does require the use of liquid solvents.
• Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. The game, which was invented in Germany, was rebranded Chinese checkers isn’t a form of checkers, nor is it from China. It was invented in Germany in 1892; the name was changed to make the game more marketable in 1928, the year in which my father was born.

But it is in politics that these questions become interesting. We have joke names like the German Democratic Republic or Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, which is anything but. The National Bolshevik Party sounds Marxist, but is in reality a right-wing, anti-Semitic fringe party. Although I do seem to remember in my history class that Bolshevik is Russian for member of the majority faction. This was itself an example of a manipulative use of language as they weren’t really the majority.

Both Left and right use words as weapons. One successful example was the term dementia tax to describe the Conservative policy of counting people’s home as an asset when it comes to paying for the care. It was highly effective. I did hear one criticism that it was borrowing the right’s meme of taxes as something negative, as in expressions such as tax relief. By adding relief to tax you are implying that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain. In a post I did about metaphors I mentioned the linguist George Lakoff, who wanted Democrats to talk about membership fees, what you pay to live in a civilized, democratic society. I really don’t see that one working, but I might be wrong. This is what Lakoff calls framing. He argues that successful political discourse is able to impose its metaphors over those of the opposition. You are implying that the earth is a big, huggable Gaia that can be befriended. Those for and against abortion like to frame the debate with pro-choice and pro-life. I haven’t read Unspeak, but I have seen these videos.

A different point of view is that of the Guardian’s Steven Poole, who coined the term Unspeak. In this sense Poole is an heir of George Orwell and his language of tyranny, newspeak. Wikipedia has a glossary of Newspeak:
doublethink the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct
goodsex intercourse between man and wife, for the sole purpose of begetting children and without physical pleasure
thoughtcrime – the criminal act of holding unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc
Unperson – someone who has been “vaporized”—not only killed by the state, but erased from existence.

Unspeak is a term or phrase that contains an unstated political argument. In the book, which he published more than a decade ago he took eight words – community, nature, tragedy, operations, terror, abuse; freedom and extremism – to show how they can be used to frame the debate. He gives some examples. For example if you say Friends of the Earth, does that make your opponents enemies of the earth? Unlike Lakoff, Poole thinks that fighting unspeak with unspeak is a bad tactic. From what I have read about human psychology it is naïve to think you can win arguments based on pure rationality.

What Google search tells us about ourselves

May 21, 2017

Discovering what people really think has often proved elusive. Just ask those pollsters who assured us that Donald J. Trump had no chance of becoming the 45th president of the USA. I am fascinated by the gap between what people say and what they really think or do. Sometimes we lie to ourselves – we really do have good intentions, but we do lack self-awareness. Other times we hide what are socially unacceptable views. What social scientists need are ways to get around these biases. I have already blogged about big data and its potential. One key area is Google search. The omniscient Google is our friend, confidante and confessor. We have all googled something that we wouldn’t dream of asking somebody in the flesh. Such search queries are anonymous, or at least that’s how we feel. Every time we type in a search we reveal something about ourselves. It is like a societal x-ray of our collective hopes fears and desires. In particular, Google’s anonymous, aggregate data can also tell us about the dark sides of our thoughts and behaviours. This tool is the subject of a new book by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz created a map of racism based on searches with racial slurs and racist jokes. He then studied how this affected voting across the United States. He used it to analyse how it affected voting in the 2012 presidential election. What he discovered was that in those areas of the country with the highest number of racist searches Obama’s results were markedly worse than those of John Kerry, the unsuccessful white Democratic candidate in 2004. This variable was far more relevant than education levels, age, church attendance, or gun ownership was. Although Obama won, the effect was important. Obama lost roughly 4 percentage points nationwide just from explicit racism. He was, however, able to get back 1% or 2% from higher African-American turnout. In 2012 the conditions were favourable the the Democrats. But this data is also germane to what happened in 2016 and the rise of Trump. According to Nate Cohn, the biggest predictor of Trump support in the Republican primaries was the racist searches. We need to be careful – correlation is not causation. Nevertheless it does provide a partial explanation of the Trump phenomenon.

What can Google tell us about Sex lies and videos? One revealing fact is that in 2015 2.5 billion hours of porn were seen on Pornhub, the largest pornography site on the Internet. To put this number in perspective, it is more than the entire history of our species on Planet Earth. And in surveys 2.5% of men say they are gay. But Google tells another story; 5% of male porn searches are for gay porn. There are more gay searches in tolerant areas, such as California, than in places like Mississippi. But the difference is not that high 5.2% compared to 4.8%

We parents do tend to want to project things onto our kids. In fact, of all Google searches starting “Is my 2-year-old…” the most common next word is “gifted.” We like to think that as parents we have equivalent expectations and dreams for our sons and daughters. But the abovementioned question is not asked equally about young boys and young girls. Parents are two and a half times more likely to ask “Is my son gifted?” than “Is my daughter gifted?” They show similar biases when using other phrases related to intelligence. Stephens-Davidowitz asks if the parents are simply picking up on legitimate differences between young girls and boys. In fact, at this age girls tend to have larger vocabularies and use more complex sentences. In American schools, girls are 11% more likely than boys to be in gifted programs. Nevertheless, parents seem to find that their male progeny are the gifted ones. With their daughters their concerns are more about appearance. “Is my daughter overweight?” is googled approximately twice as much as is “Is my son overweight?” this is despite the fact that whereas 30% of girls are overweight the corresponding figure for boys is a little higher- 33%.

A team of researchers from Columbia University and Microsoft analysed data from tens of thousands of anonymous users of Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. They coded a user as having recently been given a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer based on unmistakable searches, such as “just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer” or “I was told I have pancreatic cancer, what to expect.” The researchers wanted to discover what symptoms were strong predictors of a diagnosis. They examined the searches that had been made before the actual diagnosis, comparing the few who were finally diagnosed with the cancer to those who weren’t. Here’s how Stephens-Davidowitz explains what were remarkable results:
“Searching for back pain and then yellowing skin turned out to be a sign of pancreatic cancer; searching for just back pain alone made it unlikely someone had pancreatic cancer. Similarly, searching for indigestion and then abdominal pain was evidence of pancreatic cancer, while searching for just indigestion without abdominal pain meant a person was unlikely to have it. The researchers could identify 5 to 15 percent of cases with almost no false positives. Now, this may not sound like a great rate; but if you have pancreatic cancer, even a 10 percent chance of possibly doubling your chances of survival would feel like a windfall.”

In Everybody Lies Stephens-Davidowitz talks about the digital truth serum. The truth about what we think is so hard to find that we need every tool at our disposal. As a sceptic of opinion polls and surveys I like the idea of using proxies. However, as I pointed out in my post about big data there is a danger of finding spurious correlations, with cherry picking on an industrial scale. Nevertheless, I do feel that this book has hit on something.

Hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans: why democracy may not be the best system

May 7, 2017

The Secretary of the Authors’ Union

Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee

Which said that the people

Had forfeited the government’s confidence

And could only win it back

By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it

Be simpler in that case if the government

Dissolved the people and

Elected another?

Die Lösung (The Solution) by Bertolt Brecht


Brecht was writing about the Volksaufstand, the People’s Uprising in East Germany, which began with a strike by East Berlin construction workers on 16 June 1953. It turned into a popular revolt against the communist regime. The Volkspolizei and Soviet tanks were needed to put it down. It was obviously satirical, but after recent events maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to sack the electorate. Democracy seems to be in crisis. The current incumbent of the White House seems to have little appreciation for democratic niceties and seems to be a fan of the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin. After the Brexit vote there was a surge of basic questions on Google about what the European Union was and what the implications of leaving were. I know what the polls say, but I still have a sense of foreboding; Marine Le Pen may become the president of France. What the hell is going on?

Into the fray has come Georgetown professor Jason Brennan with a shocking critique of universal suffrage. In Against Democracy Brennan argues for epistocracy, a knowledge-based voting system. This is how the philosopher defines the concept:

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.”

After Words: Hobbits, Vulcans, and the flaws of democracy:

This kind of criticism is not new; voter ignorance has worried political philosophers since Plato. Brennan posits that citizens do a pretty bad job of evaluating political issues. His taxonomy of voters, who he divides into hobbits, hooligans, and Vulcans, is certainly provocative. Hobbits are those who are uninterested in and with little knowledge of politics. Hooligans, on the other hand, tend to know more than hobbits do. However, they will only listen to arguments which support their worldview; opposing arguments are ignored. They also lack any kind of social scientific sophistication. Finally we have the Vulcans who combine extensive knowledge and analytical sophistication with open-mindedness. As the name suggests, Vulcans do not allow their emotions and biases to impair their judgement. Alas, few of us can ever aspire to Vulcanhood. Luckily, I am one of them. However, the vast majority of voters are a mix of hobbit and hooligan. Surveys show that they lack even the most basic notions. And what little knowledge they do have is analysed in a highly biased way.They are like football fans. Brennan is a libertarian. At the heart of the problem is rational ignorance:

Each individual vote has so little impact on the final outcome, voters have little incentive to either acquire relevant knowledge or rein in their biases. They are therefore easily hoodwinked by unscrupulous demagogues. We spend far more time researching when we are going to buy a flat-screen TV or a car. Than we do on voting. This is logical in that if we make a mistake, it will be our sole responsibility and we will have to live with it. Responsibility is spread among millions.

In general we only allow people to make important decisions if they possess a certain degree of competence. We wouldn’t dream of allowing quacks to make medical decisions. Imagine you are facing an operation. You are told that rather than being operated on by a professional doctor your fate will be determined by a hundred randomly-picked laymen, who will democratically decide on how to operate on you, voting on each step of the medical procedure. We assume that people should not be allowed to make important decisions for others unless they have sufficient knowledge to do so. Even if you survive, you have suffered a violation of your rights. You should never have been exposed to the incompetence of these laymen. Brennan calls this idea the “Competence Principle.”

I find this critique of democracy thought-provoking. It does make some interesting points, but it is ultimately flawed. I think the analogy with medicine doesn’t stack up. Politics is not susceptible to this kind of analysis. If you have two candidates in an election, you cannot vote on the basis of each candidate’s IQ. Mr. Brennan thinks he is more qualified to vote than a plumber, but I’m not so sure. I don’t want to do a Michael “We’ve had enough of experts” Gove, but I am sceptical about non-partisan technocratic solutions. Smart people can easily do dumb things. As George Orwell said – there are some ideas so wrong that only a very intelligent person could believe in them. Smarter people are not immune from biases they are just more eloquent and are able to justify their prejudices. These elites may be on the left or right. Brennan and Caplan, the author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, come from a libertarian perspective. Many libertarians think that many in the general public are economically illiterate. They would like to see more influence of the marketplace. On the other hand, in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, Thomas Frank took a more left-wing perspective, looking at the rise of populist anti-elitist conservatism in the United States. Why do relatively poor people vote against their own self-interest?

I am also sceptical about the voting tests which will limit universal suffrage. Can we really trust governments to implement epistocracy in any kind of unbiased way? I mentioned gerrymandering in a previous post. In the political process these tests will surely be manipulated to favour likely voters of the party in power and exclude those who would against. What would the voter eligibility test include? What would be the pass mark? Some of Brennan solutions would be a logistical nightmare. In the end it is hard to get away from the Churchillian dictum that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.


Jason Brennan and the case for epistocracy

May 7, 2017

On his blog, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Jason Brennan says that the case for epistocracy does not depend on Plato’s philosopher kings or guardian class. There are many other possible forms of epistocracy:

  1. Restricted Suffrage: Citizens may acquire the legal right to vote and run for office only if they are deemed (through some sort of process) competent and/or sufficiently well-informed. This system has representative government and institutions similar to modern democracies, but does not imbue everyone with voting power. Nevertheless, voting rights are widespread, if not as widespread as in a democracy.
  2. Plural Voting: As in a democracy, every citizen has a vote. However, some citizens, those who are deemed (through some legal process) to be more competent or better informed, have additional votes. So, for instance, John Stuart Mill advocated a plural voting regime. As we discussed above, he though getting everyone involved in politics would tend to ennoble them. However, he remained worried that too many citizens would be incompetent and insufficiently educated to make smart choices at the polls. Thus, he advocated giving better educated people more votes.
  3. The Enfranchisement Lottery: Electoral cycles proceed as normal, except that by default no citizen has any right to vote. Immediately before the election, thousands of citizens are selected, via a random lottery, to become pre-voters. These pre-voters may then earn the right to vote, but only if they participate in certain competence-building exercises, such as deliberative fora with their fellow citizens.
  4. Epistocratic Veto: All laws must be passed through democratic procedures via a democratic body. However, an epistocratic body with restricted membership retains the right to veto rules passed by the democratic body.
  5. Weighted Voting/Government by Simulated Oracle: Every citizen may vote, but must take a quiz concerning basic political knowledge at the same time. Their votes are weighted based on their objective political knowledge, perhaps while statistically controlling for the influence of race, income, sex, and/or other demographic factors.


Where do country names come from?

April 23, 2017

I was listening to the BBC’s Word of Mouth podcast this week and they had a fascinating feature on how countries got their names. It was a very informative programme, which made me want to investigate further. Some of these origins are pretty straightforward; France is the land of the Franks, Poland of the Poles, Uzbekistan of the Uzbeks and Thailand of the Thais. However, some are more interesting.

Some places got their names after real or legendary people:

Bolivia Simón Bolívar

Colombia Christopher Columbus

Éire (Ireland)             Éire (Ériu), a Celtic fertility goddess

El Salvador Jesus (literally, The Saviour)

Israel Jacob, who was also called Israel in the Bible

Mozambique             Mussa Bin Bique

Philippines    King Philip II of Spain

Saudi Arabia             Muhammad bin Saud

Wikipedia also has some interesting dependent territories named after people:

Bermuda        Juan de Bermúdez

Cook Islands             Captain James Cook

Falkland Islands Anthony Cary, 5th Viscount Falkland

Martinique     Martin of Tours

South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands George III of the United Kingdom and John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich

Virgin Islands Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins

The programme also looked at certain controversies or curiosities regarding names. For the Dutch, Holland is just a region of the country. Indians call their country Bharat and the official transliterated name of the People’s Republic of China is: Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo. China takes its English name from the state of Quin, a western Chinese kingdom during the Zhou dynasty. The programme also cited the theory, which I first heard on QI, that America is not named after Amerigo Vespucci, but Richard ap Meryk, whose name is anglicised to Richard Amerike or Ameryk. He was a fifteenth-century Anglo-Welsh merchant, royal customs officer and, sheriff of Bristol. I remain sceptical, but it is an interesting theory. I also learned that Pakistan’s name is a semi-acronym: the P is from Punjab; the A from the Afgania province; the K from Kashmir; the S from Sindh, and the -Stan from Baluchistan. They also featured what must be the most misleading name in the atlas. The Viking Erik the Red managed to persuade 500 Icelanders to go to barren, frozen land, where they set up two colonies. In a brilliant piece of marketing he had called it Greenland.

There are a lot of inaccurate folk etymologies. Brunei is one example. According to legend, Brunei was founded by Sultan Muhammad Shah. Upon discovering the place he is said to have exclaimed Baru nah, which is loosely translated as “That’s it!” or “Eureka”, from which the “Brunei” was derived. It sounds funny, but a more credible theory is that Brunei comes from the Sanskrit bhūmi, which means ‘land’.

Venezuela means ‘Little Venice’, and was so named because it reminded explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci of the Italian city. The connection does seem somewhat tenuous, although more apt now after years of misrule, the country does seem to be sinking fast.

The Oxford dictionaries blog has an A-Z of country name origins. Here is a selection:

Andorra The name Andorra comes from a local Navarrese word, andurrial, meaning ‘shrub-covered land’. It has also been suggested that the country took its name from Arabic al-Gandura, ‘the wanton woman’, a legacy from the Moors.

Argentina The name Argentina is said to have been coined by Spanish explorers who, when they first came to the region, noticed the silver ornaments worn by the natives. Thus the word is from the Spanish argentine, ‘silvery’, and means ‘(Land of) the Silver (River)’.

Japan The name means ‘Land of the Rising Sun’ and is a reference to Japan’s location east of China. It comes from the Chinese pronunciation of ‘Jipen’, from the Chinese characters rì, ‘sun’, and bĕn, ‘origin’.

Liberia Liberia is from the Latin liber ‘free’ – the same root of the word liberty – and is so called because it was founded in 1822 as a settlement for freed slaves from the US, and proclaimed independent in 1847.

Madagascar The name Madageiscar originated with explorer Marco Polo in the 13th century as a result of hearsay and misunderstanding. He never visited the island and mistook the Italian version of the Arab name for Mogadishu, Mogadiscio, on the Somali coast to refer to the island which he called Madeigascar.

Nauru The island’s name may be derived from anáoero, ‘I go to the beach’.

New Zealand The name New Zealand comes from the Dutch province of Zeeland, ‘sea land’.

Panama Panama is named after the capital, Panama City, which is said to mean ‘(Place with) an Abundance of Fish’ – though some believe it comes from a Cuna phrase panna mai, ‘far away’.

Sierra Leone Sierra Leone means ‘Lion Mountains’ from the Portuguese sierra, ‘mountain chain’, and leão, ‘lion’. However, there are no lions here, even if there once were.

Solomon Islands The islands were named by the Spaniard Àlvaro de Mendaña de Neira (1542–95), inspired by Inca stories of islands 600 leagues to the west of Peru that had been the source of the gold that adorned the court of King Solomon.

Spain Spain may come from the Punic span or tsepan, ‘rabbit’, which were numerous in the peninsula, or from the Punic sphan,‘north’, since it was north of Carthage – or it may come from the Basque ezpaña, ‘lip’ or ‘extremity’, a reference to this south-western area of Europe.

Zimbabwe Zimbabwe means ‘stone enclosure’ or ‘stone dwelling’ from the Bantu zimba, ‘houses’, and mabwe, ‘stones’.

The programme featured Avalon, as an example of a fictional country. They could have included more. I am currently watching the second series of The Man in The High Castle, which of course has its origins in a Philip K Dick novel. After the Axis victory in WWII the Greater Nazi Reich, a fascist puppet state on the East coast, is created. And the coming week an adaptation of Margaret Attwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale will be shown on Hulu. So Gilead, a Christian-fundamentalist theocracy will become more famous. Some 500 years ago Thomas Moore invented Utopia. The name was a Greek pun meaning both no place and good place. Hollywood gave us Freedonia in Duck Soup and Bacteria, a satire of Italy under Mussolini in The Great Dictator. And finally I remember Qumran from the original Yes Minister series of the 1980s. The hapless Minister of Administrative Affairs, Jim Hacker is on a visit to this oil-rich sheikdom located in the Persian Gulf. Hacker is not looking forward to “five hours of orange juice” and so a communications room is set up near the reception, which will contain illicit liquor. Then Hacker is periodically called to the room with messages from Mr Haig, Mr Walker from the Scotch Office, Mr Smirnoff of the Soviet Embassy, and a delegation of teachers.

The examples we have seen have been from books films and TV shows. But the New York Times actually invented a Central Asian country Kyrzbekistan, instead of Kyrgyzstan. The mockery directed at the paper on social media was unceasing:

Rumour has it that #Kyrzbekistan has been given the go-ahead to enter Eurovision 2015.

 Austranians don’t like Kyrzbesistanis ever since they have sided with Luxemstein in the United States of Amigos question #Kyrzbekistan

I suppose, if all nations are “imagined communities”, the NYT making one up just took that to its logical conclusion. #kyrzbekistan

You can’t just will a country out of existence… Stand up for #kyrzbekistan!

This concludes my journey into the origins of country names. I will conclude with a map about country etymologies that featured on the internet. I think I may have seen it already on Facebook, but it makes a lot more sense now. This is definitely one for the geography geeks. However, there are some errors on the map, so this would not be appropriate for a university thesis. i recommend clicking on the full -size version once you have opened it up.

How many countries are there?

April 23, 2017

Here is a nice complementary video from CGP Grey: