What’s in a name?

Thursday, 5 May 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga

Another street name in Colombo has been changed. Bristol Street in Fort has been renamed ‘Sir Razik Fareed Mawatha’ in memory of a colourful personality in Sri Lankan politics. Always nattily dressed, we used to admire his smart personality as parliamentary reporters in the 1956 Parliament. He was always with a smile and wore an orchid in his button hole.

Renaming roads is one thing but the usage of the new name is another, particularly if the new name is longer and difficult to remember. Moreover, once we get used to a name, it’s so difficult to forget it.

Some of us ‘oldies’ still refer to Turret Road although it was over 50 years ago (in 1959) that the name was changed to Dharmapala Mawatha to commemorate one of Sri Lanka’s most illustrious sons, Anagarika Dharmapala.

Flower Road was changed to Sir Ernest de Silva Mawatha in remembrance of one of the best known philanthropists who lived there (where the Prime Minister’s office is) in 1957, but how many still talk about Flower Road?

Same with Thurstan Road which was changed to Cumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha some years back. Many remember the old name particularly because of Thurstan College is on this road. This may, of course, be not valid where the present generation is concerned.

The other day I found the name board ‘Acaharya Premasiri Khemadasa Mawatha’ identifying the road opposite the Cinnamon Gardens Police Station. Incidentally, the facelift to the Police station has given the entire area a new look.

It took me a little while to realise the road leading to the Lionel Wendt Memorial Art Centre had been renamed. Even when the old name was being used, not many of us remembered it as Guildford Crescent. We identified it as the ‘Lionel Wendt Road’. In fact, it would have been ideal to use that name to remember one of the most talented artistes this country has seen. The centre is where Lionel Wendt lived.

Even among the present generation I wonder how many use the new name ‘Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha’ for Dickman’s Road. True, most of them know Dr. Peries lives there, but how easy is it to remember the road as Dickman’s Road?

One thing I noticed was the wrong spelling of Dr. Peries’ name on the name board. The name is spelt ‘Peiris’. He is one who is very particular about how his name is spelt. When I interviewed him in the ’60s for a feature in the ‘Observer,’ the first thing he politely told me was how I should spell his name. “Remember, it’s ‘P-e-r-i-e-s,” he told me. Since that day I make it a point to check on the spelling whenever I write about him.

Knowing that people are sensitive about how their names are pronounced or spelt, officials should be extra careful, particularly when names are used in public places to be seen by everyone day and night.

I am not saying that people’s names (at least of those who have been of service to the community) should not be used to identify roads. It is certainly one way of paying tribute to deserving personalities. All I am saying is that it takes time for people to get used to the new name and start using it. It’s just that old habits die hard, as they say.

Even if the new name is not being used extensively, the name will be used in all official correspondence from the day it is announced. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that a new name would be used for ever. A new name might suddenly appear and the old one thrown away – just as it has happened to some of the old colonial names. The Municipal Councils Ordinance provides that the council shall determine the name by which any street shall be known and may at any time alter the name of any street.

I suppose hardly anyone would be bothered if a name continued to be identified by a Dutch Governor’s name (as in the case of Hulftsdorp named after Governor Hulfts who died in the siege of Colombo) or if it is a saint’s name used by the Portuguese as in the case of San Sebastian Hill. It’s just that we get used to a name once it’s used over a long period of time.

Grandpass and Milagiriya are names given by the Portuguese – the former from ‘Grand Passo’ and the latter meaning the Church of Our Lady of Miracles – Nossa Senhora dos Milagres.

We continue to use old Dutch names even though some of them, if not all, have acquired new names. Among the prominent ones are Kayman’s Gate in Main Street – ‘Kayman’ meaning a crocodile and it is said that sometimes there were crocodiles in a stream which entered the sea at this point; Wolvendaal – dale of wolves; Maliban Street – Maliban meaning the Mall, the fashionable promenade in the Pettah; Leyden and Delft gates; Bloemendaal – vale of flowers; Korteboam – short trees; Keyzer (Caeser) and Prince (Prinz) Streets.

Nearly all British Governors were remembered either by a street or a place name. Guildford Crescent commemorated the first Governor, Frederick North who succeeded to the viscounty of Guildford. Maitland Crescent was named after his successor, Sir Thomas Maitland. Ironically, Brownrigg Road named to remember Sir Robert Brownrigg, ‘the conqueror of Kandy,’ has been renamed Keppetipola Mawatha to commemorate the leader of the Uva Rebellion of 1818. The list goes on.

The practice of naming streets after Governors seems to have stopped during World War II. As a result no streets or places have been named after the last two Governors – Sir Andrew Caldecott and Sir Henry Monk Mason Moore. Neither is there one for Lord Soulbury, the first Governor General of independent Ceylon.  In the Centenary Volume of the Colombo Municipal Council, the authority deciding on street names in the city, H.A.J. Hulugalle refers to the Municipal Assessor complaining in 1930 that without a proper policy in naming roads, it was becoming a problem with the proliferation of streets.

Ten years later the council had commissioned John M. Senaveratna, writer on Sri Lanka history and allied topics, to recommend how the streets should be named. He had suggested the use of Sinhala names of flowers and names of historical significance.

Municipal Assessor C. Stewart Orr had commented that in the absence of a Town Planning Ordinance “streets spring up in all sorts of corners and unless names can be given which will ensure identification, confusion is bound to result.”