The Duck of Minerva

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The Czech Republic: when a gaffe isn’t a gaffe

July 23, 2008

I have a very difficult time getting worked into a lather because John McCain has, on more than one occasion, referred to “The Czech Republic” as “Czechoslovakia” (video).

I’m less than half McCain’s age, and I often slip (during lectures no less) and call Russia the “Soviet Union” and substitute “Soviets” for “Russians.” Shockingly enough, I almost always do this, like McCain, in contexts when I’m discussing nuclear deterrence, ballistic missile defense, and other issues that were, um, rather salient during the Cold War.

In fact, Howard Dean made the same mistake at a session of Hardball, filmed at Harvard’s Kennedy School, during the 2004 campaign for the Democratic nomination.

(And yes, right-wing bloggers excoriated him for it.)

Regardless, I’m especially willing to be indulgent of the “Czechoslovakia” slip because the phrase “The Czech Republic” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Its not like politicians–or even ordinary people–routinely use the phrase “the German Federal Republic” or “The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Most of us just say “Germany” or “North Korea.”

My wife, in remarking upon this, pointed out that the lack of a similar shorthand for the Czech Republic in the English language (and German and French, from what I can tell). In Czech, one just says “Česko.” In Russian “Чехия.” There’s no good reason we can’t call the Czech Republic “Czechia.” We just don’t; I submit that makes it harder, at least for those of us with vivid political memories dating back before 1993, to avoid this particular slip of the tongue.

Image source: wikipedia commons.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.