Saturday, October 29, 2016
opinion / Columnists
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There’s the Rub

What’s in a name?

It’s an interesting footnote to history, the effort of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino to change the name of the country from “Philippines” to “Filipinas.”

It hasn’t been received well, certainly not by the denizens of social media, also called netizens. Some have wondered if the people populating the commission have so much time on their hands they have nothing better to do than to contemplate silly ideas like this. Others have wondered if the same people have considered the costs of embarking on such a venture. Can you imagine, they say, the cost alone of changing stamps, various legal documents, and tourism paraphernalia?

The idea of changing a country’s name per se, however, is not all that batty. The new name isn’t all that hard to accept after a decade or so notwithstanding its strangeness at first. Ceylon is now Sri Lanka, Burma is now Myanmar, and Cambodia became the Khmer Republic and then became Kampuchea and then became Cambodia again. Few now even remember Sri Lanka as ever having been Ceylon, though I’ve yet to hear people refer to “Ceylon tea” as “Sri Lanka tea.” The world has a way of factoring in things like this far more easily than is generally supposed.


There are various reasons for changing a country’s name, but bringing it closer to the way its inhabitants actually call it, or pronounce it, is chief of them. Cambodia is just a western mispronunciation of Kampuchea. Sri Lanka had been called variously Seilen, Seylan, Zeylan and Ceylan before, until its government just decided to call it what its people call it which is “Lanka.” Burma came from “Bama,” which was the country’s largest ethnic group, like the Tagalogs. Keeping the name meant something like calling the Philippines “Katagalugan,” which some Katipuneros actually proposed, or variations thereof.

This is by no means the first time a proposal was made to change this country’s name into something else. The closest thing we got to doing so was during martial law, when Ferdinand Marcos plugged for it, actively endorsing a bill in the Batasan that called for changing “Philippines” into “Maharlika.” His reasons for doing so were largely propagandistic. He took “maharlika”—wrongly—to mean the Filipino nobility, and presumed himself—even more wrongly—to be the noblest of them all, as suggested by various paintings of him in martial-law Malacañang.

More to the point, he paraded the notion that he headed a clandestine guerrilla group during the Japanese occupation called the “Maharlika.” Such were the group’s exploits he became the most decorated guerrilla in the country. Those exploits were later debunked as fake, smearing “Maharlika” with the same fakeness.

But not all the efforts to turn “Philippines” into “Maharlika” owed to vested, or self-, interest. I recall that George Canseco fervently believed in the same thing. I appeared with him in a talk show on Independence Day in the 1990s and he told me so. A true believer in originality, he argued that “Maharlika” conferred that merit on us. It was certainly better, he said, than the derivative “Philippines” which our colonial masters had imposed on us.

I’m glad though that the proposal of the National Language Commission, as it used to be called before it got its Filipinized name, has stirred up a tempest of sorts, if only in a teacup, or in social media, and if only because it has drawn curiosity about the name “Philippines.” There’s a generation out there, many of them Facebook users, that doesn’t know “Philippines” owes to King Philip II of Spain, the most powerful monarch of his time, who invented the phrase “an empire where the sun never sets” to refer to his dominion, three centuries before imperial Britain did to its own.

The fellow, in whose honor the adventurer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos named us, bankrupted Spain from waging almost perpetual war with his neighbors, quite apart from decimating populations in the name of fighting heresy. You look at the local Catholic Church that Cardinal Chito Tagle has inherited, and at least as far as attempting to stamp out heresy goes, you wonder whether we were not appropriately named.

But this is the part where you wonder why, if the commission wants to change the name of the country at all, it has to settle for “Filipinas.” Why should the original Spanish name of “Las Islas Filipinas” constitute a vast improvement over the Americanized “Philippines” or “Philippine Islands?” It’s just expressing a preference for one colonizer over another.

The way I see it, we can do one of two things.

One is to change “Philippines” to something more indigenous—and “Maharlika” isn’t such a bad deal—if only to stoke some national pride. Heaven knows if there’s one country that needs to assert a desire to lose its colonial bondage, it is us. Most other Asian countries, least of all the Thais in our neighborhood, once called the Siamese, don’t. They’ve always had national pride.

Two is not to change it at all, which should save us a pretty penny, but to use it consciously—which means educating the youth about its origins—with ironic pride. We have a talent for doing so after all. The Americans forced us during their occupation at the turn of the 20th century, specifically after Filipino revolutionaries attacked one of their camps in Samar using subterfuge, to wear transparent clothing so that we could not hide bolos underneath it. With a little imagination and a lot of irony we turned that into the barong Tagalog, which is now the formal national attire. From a badge of shame, it became a badge of honor.

Maybe we can do the same thing with “Philippines.” Maybe we can turn the one Asian country named after a Spanish despot into the one Asian country that doesn’t like despots. We do have People Power after all.

A rose by any other name smells just as sweet.

TAGS: change in name, Filipinas, History, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, Philippines
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