Why do we Say Côte d’Ivoire in English?

Looking at my statistics earlier, I saw that someone had visited this site today from Côte d’Ivoire (hi). Or, if you prefer, The Ivory Coast. Obviously Côte d’Ivoire is French, and The Ivory Coast is English, but you might have noticed that Côte d’Ivoire is often used in English as the name of the country, even though we usually translate names of countries into English. Why do we make an exception in the case of Côte d’Ivoire then?

Because they asked us to, basically. The region of West Africa where you can find Côte d’Ivoire was long known as the Ivory Coast (or sometimes Côte de Dents – Coast of Teeth) due to its importance in the ivory trade. The name came to be specifically associated with the French protectorate which was formed in the 1840s, became a French colony in 1893, and gained independence in 1960.

After this point, the country continued to be known as Côte d’Ivoire in French, its official language, and then translated literally into other languages, as is the case with most countries. The government of Côte d’Ivoire though felt that this variety of translations was troublesome, probably because the name was so different in different languages. Usually the names for countries in different languages are quite similar, often simply based on applying the conventions of pronunciation in a language to the name of the country in its official tongue. But the literal translations of Côte d’Ivoire were all quite different, because most languages have very different words for ivory and coast. In 1986 therefore, the government declared République de Côte d’Ivoire and Côte d’Ivoire, to be the only official forms of the name. To this day, the nation continues to refuse to officially recognise any translations of the name.

Of course not everyone uses Côte d’Ivoire, probably due to embarrassment at using a different style of pronunciation, or simply because they’re unaware that that’s supposed to be the only possible name for the country. And of course because we’re simply used to using translations in our native tongue of the names of countries and foreign towns and cities. Though of course there isn’t a translation for every little town and village. We tend to only translate the names of towns and cities that have an international profile for one reason or another. Sometimes, we can even forget the translation of a city’s name as its profile diminishes.

Take Livorno, for example. Until the late 19th century, the Tuscan port city was known as Leghorn in English. This is possibly from the Old Italian name Legorno. The city’s importance as an international port began to decline in the mid-19th century, as did the use of Leghorn in English. Nowadays it’s almost exclusively known as Livorno, its modern Italian name, in English.

You may, by the way, have noticed a lot of people calling the Czech Republic Czechia lately, and thought it might be a similar situation to Côte d’Ivoire, using the name of the country in its official language. However, the two official Czech names for the country are Česká republika and Česko. Czechia is in fact the recommended English translation of Česko since a vote by the Czech government in April 2016 to make it the official short name. You can still use the Czech Republic of course, but Czechia is becoming more commonly used.

So you don’t need to feel strange using Côte d’Ivoire and Czechia in English. The names of all other countries are pretty straightforward, but you may still want to learn their names in their official languages to impress people while on holiday, and maybe avoid being ripped off in restaurants.

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