Philip Hensher: Independence day for a land with no name

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The Independent Online

This month, the southern half of Sudan moved closer to independence. The ruling party in Khartoum and the former rebels in the south agreed terms for a referendum, to be held in 2011. Nobody thinks that the result is likely to result in anything but a vote for independence. But one issue hasn't been resolved, as far as I know. What will the new country be called?

I went to Sudan a couple of times three or four years ago. While I was there, I took the opportunity to take Arabic lessons. My tutor was from the South, and I asked him exactly this question. He was dismissive, and pointed out that Bilad as-Sudan actually means "land of the Blacks". "We," he said, meaning the black peoples in the South, "should go on calling ourselves Sudan. They can find themselves another name."

It seems unlikely to happen. The renaming of a country, considering how immense a step it is, occurs surprisingly often. Sometimes it takes place for ideological reasons: Burma becomes Myanmar, though not with universal recognition; under the Khmer Rouge Cambodia became Kampuchea, a closer phonetic rendition of the native pronunciation, and subsequently went back again.

Often, new African countries have delved back into time and found an ancient people to name themselves after, whether fancifully or not, in the same way that Persia became the "land of the Aryans" in 1935. Rhodesia became Zimbabwe, and the Gold Coast became Ghana. The Congo, too, is actually named after an ancient people, and not after the river, though, confusingly, when it was Zaire between 1971 and 1997, that did derive from an African epithet for the great river. A classical dignity was visited on Eritrea with its naming; it had previously been (most of it) Hamasien, Mereb Mellash and, under Italian rule, Colonia Primigenia. Erythreia is Greek for "red land", and nods to its antique links with Europe.

Names which derive from major geographical features seem quite durable, being beyond most political debate. Kenya, British East Africa until 1920, was named after Mount Kenya. Both Niger and Gambia are called after the rivers. Namibia is named after the Namib desert, and Chad after Lake Chad. Chad actually means "lake", anyway. So "Lake Lake", rather like Lake Windermere, or the Sicilian name for Etna, Mongibello, which means Mount Mountain.

There are a couple of truly bizarre and unexpected country namings out there. Brazil is named after the nut, rather than the other way round. Cameroon was inspired by some shrimps in Portuguese. A pirate called Wallace gave his name to Belize – the Spanish were unable to pronounce his name. Real out-of-the-air coinings, on the other hand, are relatively rare. The African state for freed slaves in the 1820s, was of course called Liberia. Choudhary Rahmat Ali in 1933 had the honour of creating the only acronym-based name for a state, Pakistan, covering the Punjabi, Afghani, Kashmir and Sindh, and coincidentally meaning "land of the pure" as well.

And for the newly independent southern half of the Sudan? The solution of naming it after an ancient tribe or modern ethnic group won't work – the Dinka are the largest group, but it is a considerable melting pot. Somehow the moment of an artificial coining has passed. Contrary to my Arabic tutor, I can't see Khartoum cheerfully relinquishing its own name, whatever the claims of etymology. And though we live or have lived with two Yemens, two Koreas, two Germanys and now two Congos, two Sudans wouldn't seem an ideal situation. No, I think it has to be called after its predominant feature, and the greatest of rivers, wending its way through the new nation. I rather think the Republic of the White Nile has a fine ring to it.

The sickening business of celebrity spawn

This time of year is the moment when newspapers take to nominating the Stars of the Future. Like most people, I find these shiny morning faces somewhat depressing, largely because being nominated as a Star of the Future is, in almost every case, the pinnacle of their careers, and they are never heard of again. This year, however, the nausea takes a more direct form, with a new category called Rock Star Offspring. This year, one supplement trills, the offspring to look out for are Georgia May Jagger, a model, Leah Weller, another model, and Lily Collins, an actress and daughter of Phil – the musician, not the conceptual artist.

Most of all, we should apparently look out for one Coco Sumner, the daughter of Gordon "Sting" Sumner. She is making her career as a musician and front for a band called I Blame Coco. Personally, I blame her old man Gordon. The terrifyingly slender talent on display seems, on investigation, a combination of amateurish twanging which ought to have been confined to Miss Sumner's bedroom, and what sound like rejects from an early Eighties Police album. Many such offspring regularly complain that being the spawn of famous parents makes their lives harder, not easier. In the wake of Lily Allen and Bob Geldof's daughters, I think it's up to the A&R men and other talent-spotters to try to find some people who aren't the children of people who were, anyway, totally crap in the first place.

Christmas craziness and cancellations

We decided to spend Christmas in Switzerland. How difficult could that be? On Sunday, we went off to Gatwick to catch an EasyJet flight. Went through to the departure lounge, and suddenly all flights to Switzerland were cancelled. On to the laptop, and I booked one highly expensive flight to Basel with BA the next day. "We'll stay in Basel overnight," I said. "I've never been to Basel! And it's only three hours to Geneva after that."

The next day we turned up at Heathrow. The check-in lady was about to hand over the boarding passes, when something on her screen made her say "Ooh – that's strange..." Flight cancelled again, and a queue of several thousand people to rebook. Back on the laptop, and a third flight booked, this time for Wednesday. At this point, it occurred to me that I'd paid £1,500 to airlines without them managing to get us anywhere but shuttling between Battersea and a number of airports.

I set the alarm for 6am, and, by dint of staying on the phone for an hour and 20 minutes, extracted a refund for one cancelled flight from BA. There seems to be no way at all of contacting EasyJet, however. Well, it had a happy ending: we finally got to Geneva at lunchtime on the 23rd. We put our suitcases down; looked at each other in horror; turned round again and went out with all of six hours to do our Christmas shopping, from duck to nuts.