What's in a name?

30-03-2008

Don't ask me why, but one of the first things I noticed when I moved from Cologne to Prague, was that I didn't understand what lay behind many of the metro station or street names here in the Golden City. The names I'd left behind were, at least for me, entirely comprehensible, logical and reasonable. Now in Prague, however, my familiar Heumarkt, Neumarkt, Altstadt and Beethovenstrasse seemed far away when faced with the likes of Smíchovské nádraží, I.P. Pavlova, or Pražského Povstání. Mind you, I barely understood anything written or spoken in the Czech language when I arrived last month. A state of affairs which is changing, albeit so slowly as to be as yet undetectable to many!

So, I thought I'd explore the meaning behind some of the names, to provide a little insight into the history behind them, and also to spur on my attempts at learning the language better in the process...

Let's start with Můstek, a metro interchange and the area at the bottom end of Wenceslas Square. Well, Můstek, I am reliably informed, means "little bridge." So far, so good, but why little bridge? Standing there, at one of the eponymous metro station's many exits, I can't see any bridges, little or otherwise. If there is one, it must be so small it's escaping my gaze. The truth is, until the area was excavated, no-one understood why Můstek was, well Můstek. The excavations found a little bridge and thus the name of the area and thereby also the metro station, was finally clear.

Maybe we should move now to Jiřího z Poděbrad, further down the line, a station which my non-Czech friends here have resorted to naming "JZP" out of sheer exasperation at trying to pronounce it. This stop is named after George of Podebrady; maybe it seems obvious, but only when you have enough Czech to know that Jiřího comes from Jiří which comes from George! He was a Hussite leader, and king of Bohemia from 1458–1471. A further piece of information (which can definitely be filed in the useless pub quiz trivia section of most people's minds,) is that at the beginning of the Radiohead song "A Reminder" you can hear the female voice of the Prague Metro's announcement system telling you to mind the closing doors, and that the next stop will be, you guessed it, Jiřího z Poděbrad!

Then there's Anděl, an area of Prague on the west side of the river, a metro stop and tram interchange, and a great place to go shopping. And the name? Well, apparently this part of town gets its name, which means "angel" in Czech, from a 19th century pub called U zlatého anděla –At the Golden Angel- itself named after a statue of an angel which stood nearby. On the awning of the pub there was a picture of an angel, and this painted awning was kept despite the pub getting demolished, and is now displayed nearby.

Where next? A metro station again, Pražského Povstání. I can tell you that this stop's name means Prague uprising, and refers to the insurgency in Prague between 5th -8th May 1945. Resistance fighters and policemen stormed the radio building on Vinohradská street (the very building in which I currently work and from where I am writing this piece), which was being guarded by Waffen SS troops. They then used the station to broadcast a message, for as long as they could hold out, to Czech citizens urging them to rise up, erect barricades and fight for freedom from German occupation. The uprising ended on the 8th May, a surrender negotiated to save the city from being flattened by Luftwaffe air-raids, but complete liberation was only a day away, as the Soviet army arrived to free the city from its Nazi occupiers.

Many of the names of stations and places in the capital may, after a few moments thought and a little deciphering of the Czech language, be relatively straight forward after all. One sees many named after countries, places and world cities, and many others named after famous Czech and foreign people from throughout history, ancient and modern. But hopefully now the meanings of even the more obscure or more interesting names will be a little more familiar, when you next find yourself on the metro heading out for a spot of lunch near JZP!

30-03-2008