Three Little Letters That, When Strung Together, Insult A Nation

Apr 9, 2014
Originally published on April 9, 2014 6:48 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

With Ukraine struggling for territorial integrity, it may seem trivial to worry about something as mundane as a name.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

But nobody likes being called by the wrong name, and that goes for places as well as people. In the case of Ukraine, it's happened a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF AUDIO MONTAGE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Don't doubt the bipartisan concern that's been expressed about the situation in the Ukraine. There's something immediately...

JARED LETO: To all the dreamers out there around the world watching this tonight, in places like the Ukraine and Venezuela...

WAYNE KNIGHT: (As Newman) I still have armies in the Ukraine.

(LAUGHTER)

MICHAEL RICHARDS: (As Kramer) The Ukraine...

BLOCK: That was President Obama, actor Jared Leto and the characters Newman and Kramer from "Seinfeld," all bungling the country's name.

CORNISH: The Ukraine is a common construction, but it's wrong. That nation's constitution clearly names it as Ukraine. And the insertion of that definite article definitely bothers some people.

PETER FEDYNSKY: When people say the Ukraine, I feel somehow a little twinge.

BLOCK: Ukrainian-American translator Peter Fedynsky says the "the" is demeaning. The confusion, he says, stems from the root word for Ukraine: krai.

FEDYNSKY: Krai can mean land, it can be country, it can be edge; it may mean borderland.

BLOCK: And that's why in Soviet times and earlier, referring to the Ukraine, or the borderland, was common.

CORNISH: Today, Fedynsky says those three letters make a big difference to Ukrainians.

FEDYNSKY: Well, language is a powerful thing, and it creates certain impressions. And if you attach "the" to the name of the country, you diminish its value; and you question its independence, and take for granted that it belongs to someone else. Well, it doesn't.

BLOCK: Of course, to confuse matters, some countries do embrace the "the," for example, the Philippines and the United States.

CORNISH: But to recap, Ukraine is the country. The Ukraine, that's just a mistake. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.