How a news organization decides when a country name change is legitimate.

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 8 2008 6:28 PM

Burma vs. Myanmar

Why can't the newspapers just pick a name and go with it?

Page One headlines from the New York Times and the Washington Post, May 8, 2008. Click image to expand.
Page One headlines from the New York Times and the Washington Post, May 8, 2008

The front page of today's New York Times declares, "Myanmar Junta Accused of Delay in Storm Relief," while the Washington Post's front page reports there is "Scant Aid Reaching Burma's Delta." The papers are referring to the same devastating cyclone that tore through the Texas-size nation south of China and northwest of Thailand, whose ruling military junta changed the country's name from Burma to Myanmar in 1989. How do newspapers decide which name to use?

Some err on the side of letting the country itself decide, while others don't. On the Burma/Myanmar question, both newspapers and countries are divided over whether to recognize the switcheroo. Burma's military leaders changed the English-language version of the country's name to Myanmar in 1989, based on the short version of the country's name in Burmese, "Myanma Naingngandaw." While the United Nations adopted the new name in June of that year, the United States continues to call the country Burma because the change was never ratified by a legislative body in the country.

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The Associated Press adopted "Myanmar" into its 2006 Stylebook, after weighing such factors as widespread international use and its recognition by the United Nations. The Times, on the other hand, has an informal policy of going with whatever the country wishes to be called, so long as the new name appears to have stuck; it began referring to the nation of Myanmar back in 1989. Five years earlier, the paper immediately adopted Upper Volta's change to Bourkina Fasso, declaring in an Aug. 5 headline that "Upper Volta, At Fete, Vows To Do Better As Bourkina Fasso." (The name of that nation is now more commonly spelled "Burkina Faso.")

Meanwhile, the Post tends to consult National Geographic in these decisions, though this case is an exception; National Geographic currently lists the country as "Myanmar (Burma)." The Post originally chose not to accept "Myanmar" because the military junta had not been recognized by many nations as a legitimate governing body. Slate uses "Burma" for similar reasons.

While most newspapers use the Associated Press Stylebook as a guideline for usage decisions, they also have an in-house process for arbitrating style quandaries. This is presided over by a "style czar," usually the copy desk chief or someone he or she designates, who consults knowledgeable staff members and outside experts with relevant experience.

Because different papers choose to adopt name changes at different times, it's common for those that use the new name to remind readers somewhere in the article that the country used to be called something else. In its entry on "Myanmar," TheNew York Times Manual of Style and Usage urges editors to "[g]racefully remind readers of the former names when necessary" and states that "Burmese" is still informally acceptable as a noun or adjective referring to the people. This practice is likely to remain as long as there is significant dispute over the name.

Country name changes are not as common as they used to be, though there was considerable confusion in 2006 when newspapers couldn't agree on whether the city formerly known as Bombay should now be called Mumbai. Because name changes are frequently the result of a nation shedding its colonial or Soviet heritage, the decision on whether to accept them can be politically sensitive. The Times was initially criticized for adopting Myanmar too readily, though several other large publications, such as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal, have now followed suit.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Scott Bosley of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, David Minthorn of the Associated Press, Don Podesta of the Washington Post, and Craig Whitney of the New York Times.

Chris Wilson is a Slate contributor.

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