Tuesday, June 17, 2008

What's in a name?

Cathay Pacific is known for being one of the world’s top airlines. Unlike many national carriers that sacrifice everything from the peanuts they serve you to free checked baggage, Cathay has always been known for its great level of service. OK, enough tooting their horn.

At first I thought the name Cathay was just something that sounded somewhat sleek, something like a cross between café and Cathy. Because this is Hong Kong’s airline, I thought that maybe the name was intended to be neutral, so as not to stir Asia’s spider’s nest of geopolitical positioning.

Was I ever wrong.

Cathay is, in fact, what Medieval Europe called China. This name was created courtesy of Marco Polo, the man who brought spaghetti to Italy, who westernized the word Khitan, the name of a ruling Northern-Chines tribe.

The world’s greatest encyclopedia outlines the etymological progression.

Mongolian/Classical Mongolian: Khyatad (Хятад) / Kitad
Uyghur (Western China): خىتاي, Xitay
Kazakh: قىتاي, Қытай, Qıtay
Kazan Tatar (Central Russia): Qıtay
Russian: Kitay (Китай)
Medieval Latin: Cataya, Kitai
Spanish: Catay
Italian: Catai
Portuguese: Cataio
English: Cathay

It also notes that the word China is almost as old as Cathay, it is just that the popularization has changed over time.