Flat Earth

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The Independent Online
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The man who any day now will be running Zaire, Laurent Kabila, is planning to change the country's name back to Congo. I hope, though, that he gets some kind of endorsement from the people who live there.

This is for our sake as much as theirs. I remember when the Khmer Rouge seized control of Cambodia and demanded that we all start calling it Kampuchea. Reasonable enough, some people thought: that is the country's name in the Khmer language, and "Cambodia" is simply a Europeanisation of the same word. But as soon as Pol Pot's genocidal gang was replaced by a more democratic government, it asked everyone to go back to the old name, making those who had switched look like appeasers.

Hence the slowness of "Myanmar" to catch on in place of Burma, even though it, too, is the local name for the country (in the language of the dominant ethnic group, at least, but let us leave that complication aside). Mobutu Sese Seko, however, has been in power for 32 years, and changed Congo to Zaire 25 years ago. How long do you hold out on principle?

The irony is that the word "Zaire" is a mispronunciation of a misunderstanding by 15th-century Portuguese explorers. When they sailed into the estuary of the great river that forms the backbone of the country and asked the locals where they were, the Kongo tribesmen answered "Nzadi", which means "river". Perhaps we are lucky the place wasn't named after the next word, which was probably "stupid".

Judge on top

"If It were widely known that 10 topless women were walking down Park Avenue and 10 topless men were walking down Madison Avenue," said a judge in New York, "the effect on the traffic on Park Avenue would be substantially greater than on Madison Avenue."

This dose of legal wisdom was Judge John S Martin's response to a submission from a topless dancer and the bar where she works, the Cozy Cabin. They claimed that a municipal ordinance barring female topless dancing in residential areas discriminated against women, because male dancers were not mentioned.

The plaintiffs' lawyer said the New York authorities had never shown that topless women had a worse effect on a neighbourhood than bare-chested men, but the judge replied that there was manifestly a difference: "One does not have to be either a psychologist or a sociologist to recognise that." This is an interesting new legal concept, which I have sometimes heard called "common sense".

End of the line

A Friend telephones from Sicily. He was watching television, he says, when a man purporting to be a doctor came on, claiming that infertility problems are often passed from father to son. While his viewers were still digesting the apparent implausibility of this, the doctor added that he had found a cure for the condition: the only problem was the children thus fathered were likely to be sterile.

My friend's Italian is impeccable, so the confusion does not arise there. If you can cure the infertility of one generation, he wanted to shout at the screen, why doesn't the same treatment work on their offspring? The whole conundrum has been bothering him ever since, especially since he didn't quite catch the doctor's name. Whatever it is, and whatever the answer, I wouldn't advise sending the medical genius any money.

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