Chicken Kyiv

By bne IntelliNews March 7, 2014

Ben Aris in Moscow -

Get used to it: from now on you will have to order Chicken Kyiv instead of Chicken Kiev after Russia's actions in Crimea made Ukraine the West's top foreign policy priority.

Ukrainians have long been irked by the international press' insistence on spelling the name of the capital "Kiev", which is a transliteration from the Cyrillic of the Russian spelling of the name.

While Ukrainian and Russian are very similar, they are two distinct languages (think Spanish vs Italian). To make matters more confusing, Ukraine has its own version of Cyrillic with a few extra letters, one of which appears in the capital's name (an "i" with an umlaut, as in the English word "naive") that doesn't exist in the Russian version of Cyrillic.

And that is where the problem comes in. Since independence in 1991, Ukraine has naturally enough reverted to Ukrainian as its official language (although Russian is still widely spoken by almost everyone). And along with that comes changing the Latin versions of all proper names to the transliteration of their Ukrainian, not Russian versions.

On the whole, western journalists have not had a problem with this. For example, after some initial confusion, most of the press have adopted "Tymoshenko" and "Yanukovych" as the spellings of the surnames of the former prime minister and now former president's surnames, whereas the Russian transliterations of their names are "Timoshenko" and "Yanukovich" respectively.

But almost no one has made the change for the spelling of the capital. It irritates the hell out of the Ukrainians, who see it as insulting to continue to read about their capital using a spelling left over from the period of Soviet domination that they are trying to so hard to put behind them.

The reason? This correspondent has on many occasions pointed out the political incorrectness of using "Kiev", but editors at most international publications universally come back with the same excuse before running a search/replace on your copy: "It's the chicken thing." The Russian spelling of Ukraine's most famous dish is so deeply ingrained in the reading public's mind (believe editors) that almost no newspaper is willing to foist the alien looking "Kyiv" on their punters.

That could now change. In its press release of March 6 announcing the imposition of limited sanctions on Russia for its "invasion" of Ukraine, the White House used the "Kyiv" spelling of the capital's name.

The statement reads: "In addition, the President has signed an Executive Order that authorizes sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for activities undermining democratic processes or institutions in Ukraine; threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine; contributing to the misappropriation of state assets of Ukraine; or purporting to assert governmental authority over any part of Ukraine without authorization from the Ukrainian government in Kyiv."

For close watchers of Eastern European politics, this was a watershed moment and says very clearly that the US State Department is aligning itself with the Ukrainian nationalists that mostly live in the western part of the country (and have been doing most of the complaining over the years about the spelling mistakes, as well as much of the demonstrating on Independence Square, known as Maidan). Naturally enough, the Russophile eastern regions never had much of a problem with the "Kiev" version of the name, as they both speak Russian and use the Russian version of Cyrillic.

Obviously someone has been boning up on their Ukrainian etiquette - and very recently too. Only last week, the US government came in for a roasting by Maidan after Congress announced it was holding an emergency meeting to discuss the situation in "the Ukraine".

This is another PC gaffe. The use of the definite article in front of the country's name is also a throwback to the Soviet era; "the" appears in front of regions of a country, as Ukraine used to be in the Soviet era, but sovereign nations almost never use the definite article in front of their name. Ukraine abandoned its "the" in 1991. While "the Ukraine" has become "Ukraine" in the European press years ago, the US press, and even the White House, continued to goof on this one regularly.

Now the Rubicon has been crossed sub-editors around the world must be throwing up their hands in despair, as there is a plethora of funny-looking Ukrainian names headed their way: Boris becomes Borys, Sergei becomes Serhiy, Alexander becomes Olexandr, and so on...

Still, if you are hungry for that chicken swimming in herb-butter, you will probably still be able to order Chicken Kiev for a while longer, as few sub-editors become restauranteurs and the hospitality industry is not famous for proofreading its menus before printing.

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