bigjohn

There is many a good tune played on an old fiddle.

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“On the road to Mandalay ? ….”

Posted by Big John on October 1, 2007

In the year 1687 an overdressed and bewigged representative of the British East India Company addressed an Indian ‘punka-wallah’ dressed in turban and dhoti …

“I say there ! You little brown chappie ! Pray tell me what this place is called ?”

“We are calling it Mumbai, sahib”.

“Right! Bombay it is then”.

I only found out that ‘Bombay’ was called ‘Mumbai’ when my bank opened a call centre there, and I found myself talking to very polite people who had a problem understanding me, despite speaking better English ‘than like wot I do’.

Now I find that the troubled country of Burma is really called Myanmar, which I understand sounds similar to the word ‘Burma’ when spoken in the local tongue: so I suppose that at some time in 1886 some pompous colonial ‘johnny’ bumped into a small bald man in a saffron coloured robe when he couldn’t find Rangoon (because it was really called ‘Yangon’), and asked where he was.

When I was at school maps still hung on classroom walls showing a large part of the world coloured in red to represent the British Empire. There must have been an awful lot of spelling mistakes on those maps resulting from close encounters with all those bloody bare arsed natives in all those far off lands. 

Even in our North American colonies names were changed, as in the case of Buffalo (N.Y.) where some half-deaf redcoat in 1759 asked a passing French trapper where he caught his beaver and was told … “Beau Fleuve, monsieur”.

I expect that we British inherited the problem from the Romans. Imagine a pebbled beach on the south coast of this country around 55BC as the first legionaries wade ashore

Centurion Marcus Spencius to scruffy git with spikey hair and blue make-up  …

“Greetings you Celtic cretin ! … Is this the foggy island of Albion?”

“Never ‘erd of it mate. This is Brighton”.

“Did he say Britain, scribe ? Oh, what’s it matter …

…  write it down anyway”.

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7 Responses to ““On the road to Mandalay ? ….””

  1. Betty said

    Great post, John. Is that true about Buffalo? How come you know about it and I don’t? Don’t answer that.

  2. Chris said

    That’s a good theory of how Britain got its name, John. But, bearing in mind how unfriendly a lot of the natives of these isles can be (especially when faced with a bunch of arrogant Roman invaders asking what the name of the place is) it’s a wonder this country isn’t called Buggeroff, ain’t it?

  3. Jackshian said

    Ok then John – whats your theory about Bangkok

  4. Ginnie said

    I’d love to have you visit us here in the South (of the US). I’ve been here almost 30 years and I still can’t understand a “true southerner”.

  5. Jim McClellan said

    John
    Hi. Sorry to clog the comments up with something random – I tried to get in touch direct but I think I may be using an out of date email address for you. A few years ago, you were kind enough to do an interview for a piece I did for The Guardian. I was wondering if I could ask another favour. If you get chance, could you drop me a line at the email address I entered on this form. Thanks for your help.
    Cheers
    Jim

  6. Big John said

    Sorry Jack, but Siam was never part of the British Empire. Perhaps it had something to do with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. 🙂

  7. Red Baron said

    Surely since the scruffy Celt had a blue face your post should be entitled The Woad To Mandalay…?!

    I’ll get me coat!

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