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At our command the fires go out: who is entitled to change place names?

Brecon Beacons National Park in Wales will not be called that for much longer. The Wikipedia edit war has already begun.

“Brecon Beacons: Park to use Welsh name Bannau Brycheiniog”, reports the BBC. Few would have a problem with both the Welsh and English names being used in parallel, as is done now, but there does seem something a little… monocultural about insisting that only the Welsh name is used. The park is not in a majority Welsh-speaking area. As anyone who has spent more time in Welsh shopping centres than council chambers knows, there is, sadly, considerable hostility to the Welsh language from the English-speaking majority of Welsh people. This high-handed action will increase it.

However, the change of language is not what is really annoying people. Snowdonia, sorry, Eryri National Park has already enacted a similar change with little controversy. Something more than the familiar jostling between languages in a bilingual country has driven this change of name. In a Telegraph article about how he wooed his wife on the Brecon Beacons, John Humphrys quotes, not favourably, Catherine Mealing-Jones, who is the chief executive of the national park authority which runs the Beacons:

“The more we looked into it,” she says, “the more we realised the name Brecon Beacons doesn’t make any sense. It’s a very English description of something that probably never happened. A massive carbon-burning brazier is not a good look for an environmental organisation.”

The gratuitous swipe at the English wasn’t very nice. More importantly, who is “we” here? What gave this group of bureaucrats, whoever they are, the right to have their amateur speculations on etymology taken seriously? Why should their views on the symbolism of the name of a national park be enacted? They were not elected. They don’t own shares in the place. Nor are they the heirs to King Brychan, whose realm this once was. That leaves right of conquest. You may smile, but there is something of “We are the masters now” in this change.

The best comment came from David Williams, a fine Welsh name, to another Telegraph article:

What a good idea and such intelligent insight. Can we please have the dragon taken from the flag as well, fire breathing animals should not be promoted in the spirit of net zero.

13 comments to At our command the fires go out: who is entitled to change place names?

  • bobby b

    Ha! Shades of Minneapolis.

    One of the great assets of the City of Minneapolis is the chain of nice lakes that runs through the city. The largest lake is – was – Lake Calhoun – named after past Vice President and head of the War Department of the US John Calhoun.

    Sadly, he was anti-Indian – as was everyone who remained alive after the massacres in this area in the 1800’s – and so the lake’s name could not stand.

    The Minneapolis Park Board decided on its own to rename the lake. The new name is Bde Maka Ska. People fought this up to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but the new name was ruled properly done.

    No one can pronounce it. Most Native Americans in woke Minneapolis live in grinding poverty, but at least they have the lake!

  • Fraser Orr

    What a good idea and such intelligent insight. Can we please have the dragon taken from the flag as well, fire breathing animals should not be promoted in the spirit of net zero.

    Is it just me or when you read this do you hear a Welsh accent? And to be clear, for a Scottish kid of the 80s like me, “Welsh accent” means “sounds like Jones the Steam, from Ivor the Engine”.

  • Paul Marks

    It is the Brecon Beacons (or just Brecon) – for years activists changed signs they did not like in various places. If you see a sign calling the Brecon Beacons anything else – change the sign back.

  • Paul Marks

    Brecon is a reasonable name.

  • John


    The bbc has never been properly held to account for their complicity in enabling the environmental damage caused by Idris the dragon who lived in Ivor the Engine’s boiler from whence he spewed pollution across the length and breadth of the “top left hand corner of Wales”.

  • James Hargrave

    Let’s all enter the great argument in ‘Ceredigion’ (why not Cardiganshire in the spirit of true bilingualism?): is it Trawscoed (most locals) or Trawsgoed (the officials)? – and don’t look for signs containing Crosswood.

  • Peter MacFarlane

    In Scotland this argument is carried on by inventing “Gaelic”-looking place names and displaying them on railway stations in places – such as Ayrshire – where Gaelic isn’t spoken, and indeed never was. At least they haven’t tried to rename the actual towns, yet.

  • Tony Harrison

    Try living in New Zealand. Government Departments are now named in Maori which virtually no one speaks. The weather reports are often given only in Maori. The organisation I work for has taken up a traditional practice of a combination of greeting and blessing at the start of meetings. One gets five minutes of listening to a non maori speaker trying to do the opening in Maori and none of the participants able to tell if they have been greeted or told to fuck off.

  • bobby b

    We should be fighting to rename everything with Neanderthal names. Everyone else was just a colonialist usurper.

  • X Trapnel

    Thank your lucky stars you’re not a non-Xhosa speaker in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, now definitively styled in the catchy Xhosa name Gqeberha, which this Wikipedia entry helpfully tells us is, linguistically, 22.2% Xhosa, 33.2% English, and a piddling – nay, derisory – 40.2% Afrikaans.

    The Afrikaans name for the city formerly known as Port Elizabeth, and currently known as Gqeberha, is not listed – not even on the Afrikaans Wikipedia entry. It is simply Port Elizabeth. I suspect the Afrikaaners never called it anything else, and doubt the name-change to the Xhosa will move the dial much on that question.

  • Paul Marks

    Just call the area Brecon.

  • Penseivat

    Why don’t the numpties in Wales go the whole hog and not use the English words “National Park”, and change those words to Welsh? By the by, what is “numpty” in Welsh? Then, those of an intelligent bent can insult them in a language they understand.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    Penseivat, my husband suggests twpsyn, which the dictionary defines as “fool, dimwit” but he says it actually has a slightly softer and more indulgent tone than those words, much like “numpty” does. The adjective “twp” meaning “daft, silly” is widely understood among Welsh people who don’t speak Welsh.

    I had better also say that my husband is not a native speaker of Welsh, so if anyone knows of a more idiomatic translation for “numpty”, please let us know.