Trivia · Word of the week

Word of the week: eSwatini

As you may have noticed, eSwatini is the new name for the African nation previously known as Swaziland. This BBC Country Profile tells us that it is one of the world’s few remaining absolute monarchies, and that the change of name was announced by its king, Mswati III, in 2018, “a move critics said was made without consultation and needed a constitutional change”.

Over the weekend eSwatini was the only pointless answer for a question on “Pointless Celebrities” on BBC1, in an episode featuring sportspeople. Round 1 required the contestants to name any country beginning with the letters ‘R’ ‘E’ ‘A’ ‘L’ or ‘M’. (As usual, “by country we mean a sovereign state that is also a member of the UN in its own right”.) Nobody suggested eSwatini but cricketer Graeme Swann (three Ashes wins) chose Anguilla, which is not a country. He and team-mate Matthew Hoggard (one Ashes win) did not make it to Round 2 of the show. A contestant on ITV’s “Tenable” also suggested Anguilla in last Friday’s episode (24 January) in a question regarding countries, specifically, to name the first 10 one-word countries alphabetically that end with the letter ‘A’. Anguilla joins a list of territories that have been mistaken for sovereign states on TV shows over the years, including Greenland, Kurdistan, Lapland, Puerto Rico and indeed England and Wales (which are both part of the United Kingdom).

The new name for Swaziland means that there are now exactly 10 countries whose names, in English, end in the word “land” or “lands”. This makes it a suitable subject for a “Tenable” list, and it was used in an episode broadcast last month (on 16 January). Last March (in the episode dated 4 March 2019) Swaziland was still an acceptable answer in a list of the 10 countries that contain the letters ‘A’ and ‘W’. As it turns out, even with the name change the country is still an acceptable answer for this question: eSwatini also contains the letters ‘A’ and ‘W’

Swaziland joins a list of country names that have been superseded, but some of them might still be acceptable in quiz terms. Is Ivory Coast still an acceptable name or is it always Cote d’Ivoire these days?  What about East Timor (Timor Leste) and Cape Verde (Cabo Verde)? With Myanmar (formerly Burma) different governments use different names. It’s still officially known as Burma here in the UK. The CIA World Factbook still listed it as Burma in August 2019. The United Nations recognizes it as Myanmar.

There are plenty of former names that are definitely not valid these days, such as Upper Volta (which became Burkina Faso in 1984) and Zaire (DR Congo since 1997). On a previous episode of “Pointless Celebrities” the excellent comedy writer Barry Cryer confidently offered Nyasaland in a question about countries beginning with ‘N’. It has been known as Malawi since 1964.

“Pointless” has now been running on BBC1 for over 10 years. It has played a major part in making millions of viewers (including me) more familiar with previously little-known countries around the world. We know the names even if we are unsure of exactly where they are. In early series of the show, Central African Republic (formerly French Equatorial Africa), Tuvalu (formerly known as the Ellice Islands) and Vanuatu (named the New Hebrides in the early 20th century when claimed by France and the UK) were often pointless answers. These days they usually score points. I expect that eSwatini will go the same way, providing pointless answers for a year or two but then entering the public consciousness sufficiently to score points. For the record, the country’s capital city remains Mbabane, which is likely to offer pointless answers for many years to come.



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