Reviews | Kiev against Kiev, Zelensky against Zelenskyy, and the immense meaning of “the”
It should have been simple to say: things (and people) change, including the names of things (and people), and seemingly innocuous nomenclature changes can have important content, and it’s good to keep up. .
I am not a global sociopolitical expert (or an epidemiologist, as so many people are these days); I am a copy editor. When I find major ideas bubbling in my brain, I tend to hit the delete key. When I look at a photo of four ukrainian teenagers newly volunteered for the fight, three of them wearing skater knee pads and one carrying a yoga mat, I have no major ideas, just a feeling of unfinished and impending desperation.
So, quick, before I lose my temper and something worse happens than what has already happened:
Ukraine is an independent country and has been since declaring itself free from the moribund and moldy Soviet Union in 1991 – more than 30 years ago, I stress. It is not “Ukraine”, that is to say not a province, not a territory, which is indeed the smell given off by this “the”, as in, going back in history, “the Levant” or “Crimea”.
“The ‘le’ is gone,” noted the Ukrainian Weekly (published in Jersey City) in its December 8, 1991, issue.
“It’s just Ukraine,” diplomat William B. Taylor Jr. told Time in 2014 after President Barack Obama referred to “the situation in Ukraine.” “It’s incorrect to refer to ‘Ukraine’,” Taylor continued, “even though a lot of people do. … It kind of denies their independence, denies their sovereignty.
Even just last month at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, the stately Brian Cox, accepting an award on behalf of the entire “Succession” series, made mention of “what is happening in Ukraine” before, twice, hitting autonomous “Ukraine” loud and clear.
Look, it’s an easy stumble, and I’ve caught myself several times over the past few weeks. Maybe you do too.
But this ostensible burst of difference, this “the”, is, to borrow an idea attributed to Vladimir Lenin, the difference between “who” and “whose”: who does and to whom it is done, who owns whom, or claims they do.
As for Kiev and Kyiv, it’s simpler: Kyiv is the appropriate transliteration of the Ukrainian name of the country’s capital, while Kiev is the name of the city in Russian. (An online campaign – KyivNotKiev – was launched in 2018 by the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry.) It doesn’t take a big thinker, I think, to figure out why Ukrainians would prefer one over the other.
About chicken Kiev, a dish that was very probably invented a century or two ago, neither in Russia nor in Ukraine but in Paris, and which seems to exist mainly to squirt hot butter on your breastplate: I I’m not sure renaming it chicken Kyiv, as British supermarket chain Sainsbury’s just did, makes an even more effective statement than “freedom fries” did in 2003 when someone was mad at the French, as we always seem to be.
What about the surname of the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, or Zelenskyy, depending on which US publication you read? (The Post and New York Times, among others, prefer the simple “y”, while USA Today, the Associated Press and others go with “yy”.) For some people I’ve read, the simple spelling reflects a more Russian approach, the double appearing more Ukrainian. We note that the Ukrainian president’s Twitter account is @ZelenskyyUa.
Those of us who follow publishers’ usages and standards at least as much as we state them will continue to watch the Zelensky(y) case with interest – and remember that the words, even “the” little ones, even their most small components, can have a big meaning.