From Bohemia to Czechia

Photo: archive of Radio Prague

On May 2, 2016, the government of the Czech Republic decided to notify Czechia to the UN as the short alternative of the country´s English name, and on July 1, it was officially entered into the UN databases. Heated discussions preceded this resolution, with many considering the word „ugly“, and with even more erroneously believing that it was to replace „the Czech Republic“. So what´s in the name?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
In the past, there might have been some confusion about the country´s geography – the playwright Ben Jonson mocked his rival Shakespeare that he „in a play brought in a number of men saying they had suffered a shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea near by some 100 miles.“ But there was no doubt about its English name.

For centuries, the country was called Bohemia in English and Latin, a name derived from the Celtic tribe of Boii who resided there in antiquity. The famous English cartographer John Speed wrote in 1626: „There remains no great difficulty, concerning the name. (…) And it is worth observing, that though this land hath in sundry ages been so often ransacked, and possessed by strangers, and tyrants: yet in her name she constantly preserves the memory only of her first natives, and hath not suffered that change, as we have done, from Albion to Britain, from Britain to England".

In 1348, the Roman emperor and King of Bohemia Charles IV introduced the concept of the Crown of Bohemia (Corona regni Bohemiae in Latin), a term which designated the whole state, not only its core territory. And at least since then, it was sufficiently clear also to English authors that „under the name of Bohemia, in general, are included the kingdom of Bohemia, the duchy of Silesia, and the marquisate of Moravia“ (Universal Magazine, 1756). Early editions of Encyclopaedia Britannica used the term Bohemia in this broad sense, while other publications resorted to composite names like Bohemia and incorporated provinces, Bohemia and its annexed provinces, Bohemian dominions, Bohemian lands etc. In the narrower sense, the term Bohemia Proper was frequently used.

However, the language of the diet and courts in medieval Bohemia was primarily Czech, not Latin (until 1627-8, when German was introduced by the Habsburg dynasty as the second official language of the country, and for a certain time replaced Czech as the language of elites; but this is another story). In old Czech, Bohemia was always called Cžechy, after the Slavonic tribe which settled the country around the 6th century, and the Crown of Bohemia was called Koruna cžeská, until 19th century orthographic reforms when cž was replaced by č (Čechy, Koruna česká).

In 17th – 18th centuries, it became fashionable to use the Czech name also in Latin: the word Czechia was coined as an alternative to Bohemia, and it appears in thousands of documents, books, inscriptions, and even arias. In 1769, a "Historical, chronological and critical inquiry into the issue how and when Bohemia started to be called Czechia and its inhabitants Czechs“ was published in Latin.

Although contemporary English authors were aware that „Bohemians in their own language call themselves Czechians“, they didn´t adopt the Latin scholarly fashion. It was only in the 19th century when the word „Czech“ gained frequency in English, and Bohemian lands began to be called alternatively Czechian provinces, Czech lands, or, from 1841, also Czechia.

Many Czech politicians, including the Czech-American (or, how he would prefer to be called, Bohemian-American) Charles Jonas, didn´t like this terminological shift: „We are Bohemians: and if we were to lose this name, I really don´t know how they should call us here. The word „Czech“ is a riddle to everybody,“ he wrote in 1875.

Officially, the country was still represented as Bohemia in the early Olympic games, in FIFA, or the International Ice Hockey Federation (Czechs´ favourite sports). Bohemian lands might have been provinces of Austria-Hungary at the time (the result of a gradual amalgamation process which began in the 17th century), but in sports, they asserted their independence, as Wales or Scotland today.

Also the future president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, when he embarked on his fight for political independence from Austria-Hungary during the World War I, made it clear in his Independent Bohemia, a memorandum presented in 1915 to the British government, that „the Bohemian State would be composed of the so-called Bohemian countries, namely of Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia; to these would be added the Slovak districts of North Hungary.“

Although Slovaks are ethnically and linguistically related to Czechs, historically, they were never included in the Bohemian state. Out of consideration for them, the country founded on October 28, 1918 was named the Czechoslovak Republic. Not everybody was pleased by this decision: the famous writer Karel Čapek stated, in an article co-authored by his brother Josef, that it was „incorrect and unattractively sounding“. The National Geographic Magazine called the name „awful“ and an „unfair handicap“.

However, Czechs transformed into Czechoslovaks with great enthusiasm, and identified with the liberal and democratic republic, until it was crushed by Nazi Germany in 1938 – 1945 and dominated by Soviet Union in 1948 – 1989. When the country dissolved into the Czech and Slovak Republics in 1992, the Czechs still fondly claimed the continuity with Czechoslovakia in the preamble to the constitution, which was drafted by Václav Havel and begins with following words: „We, the citizens of the Czech Republic in Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, at this time of the reconstitution of an independent Czech State, true to all the sound traditions of the ancient statehood of the Lands of the Crown of Bohemia as well as of Czechoslovak statehood…“. In 1993, the Czech Republic registered only its formal name with the UN. Its short version Czechia sounded too much like an amputated version of Czechoslovakia.

However, in the UN databases, countries usually register both their formal name and their short name (f. i. French Republic – France) in English and other UN working languages. Almost 24 years after the split, the government hoped that the wounds were healed, and decided to go ahead with the registration. Choosing the country´s short international name wasn´t a creative exercise: it was a choice from what history had to offer. While Bohemia would have been a historically sound option, it doesn´t correspond with the formal name, and moreover, it is now commonly used only in the narrow sense, as the name of Bohemia proper, not including Moravia and Silesia. The name Czechia has a decent pedigree dating back to at least 1602. It isn´t intended to replace the Czech Republic, but it will hopefully replace the awkward formula „what´s now the Czech Republic“ in historical and geographical contexts.

More importantly, the republic will hopefully remain, in the words of its constitution, „a free and democratic State founded on respect for human rights and on principles of civil society, as a member of the family of European and World democracies“.

If anybody needs to be convinced that, despite the name changes, this is still the same country, he or she may be reassured by reading what John Speed wrote in 1626 about its people: they produce and export „excellent beere. For they are held very good at the art of brewing, and not behind-hand at drinking when they have done.“

Cheers, Czechia!