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Sunday, January 09, 2011

Bombay vs. Mumbai

Many places in India have experienced name changes. I wondered: To what extent do these new names take over? Google gives us interesting bits of information about this question. gives us the ability to measure the extent to which a word occurs in the millions of books that google has digitised. For the Bombay vs. Mumbai question, it shows:
The phrase `Bombay' vs `Mumbai' in books

This suggests that the people who write books are still emphasising `Bombay' instead of Mumbai.

Turning away from books to the web, google gives us two kinds of information: the extent to which either name is used in the stock of material on the net (as of today), and the extent to which either name is used in google searches.

City Share in searchShare in web
Calcutta 0.22 0.25
Bombay 0.19 0.22
Madras 0.11 0.17

In the case of Bombay, this tells us that the old name (`Bombay') makes up 19% of google search traffic and 22% of the stock of content on the web. So this evidence suggests that the new name has been accepted the most in contemporary use with Chennai, less so with Mumbai and further less with Kolkata. I wonder why this would happen.


  1. don't know why exactly results are so. but we still use bombay in our colloquials.

  2. Here's an unscientific guess, Ajay. The change of Madras was not politically controversial, and being a largely monolingual city, most Tamil-speakers probably had no reason to hesitate in adopting the change while making the search. With Bombay, the change was political, and Mumbai has at least two formidable alternatives - Bambai and Bombay. And with Calcutta/Kolkata, the change is arguably cosmetic, in that Kolkata is a more accurate phonetic representation of Calcutta (in Bengali). Another reason - and completely in the realm of speculation - is that the Internet is relatively a new phemonenon - at a "mass level", less than two decades old. So the younger generation is more used to calling Bombay Mumbai - particularly by users outside the city. (I find folks in other cities not hesitating in calling it Mumbai; most resistance comes from those who've lived in the city and who were adults in 1996 when the change occurred). So it is easy to see more searches and web pages showing preference for Mumbai. But with books it is different; presumably most who write books are older - and given that, that preference is shown in the books' content search. My guess is in another 20 years, the books' search too would show more preference for Mumbai (which is sad, of course).

  3. My guess is that the newer names of Bombay and Calcutta are more inline with their correct form of pronunciation. It isnt an altogether new name. Same is the case with Bangalore as well. But Madras Vs Chennai are different names. Even when the official name was Madras, the tamil usage had been Chennai. So I guess the name change is more effective in case of Madras.

  4. Hi Ajay, I believe ngrams is case sensitive. I just tried Mumbai and Bombay instead of mumbai and bombay. The graphs are different in shape (but trends remain).

  5. Not sure if the books on Google Books were all primarily written after the name change. I think this could be a case of the "Bombay" word being picked up from the literature that dated prior to the name change.

    I am very habituated to saying "Bombay" but I find that internationally, by the people started taking note of India, it had become Mumbai, and I have to explain why I say "Bombay" for Mumbai.

  6. I guess thats one way of looking at it.. the other way is, how well has the city done under each names.. does a name change really make a difference?

  7. @Sathya, nope; the newer name of Bombay (Mumbai) is not the "correct form of pronunciation", as you put it. Bombay comes from Bombaim (in Portuguese) which is derived from Bom Bahia (a good bay - grammatically more accurate would be Boa Bahia, to be properly gender-sensitive). Mumbai, OTOH, comes from Mumba, the goddess the Kolis worshipped. The Kolis were there first; but there's less evidence to show that they called the entire city Mumbai, than the evidence that shows that one of the original seven islands was called Bombay (the others being Parel, Mahim, Colaba, Little Woman's Island, etc, and those were reclaimed and the city became one in the late 17th-early 18th century, after the Brits got the islands as dowry from the Portuguese, when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza. The island of Bombay was Dongri to Malabar Hill; and that usage predates "Mumbai". I don't want to discuss the politics of the name change here, but from the perspective of historical accuracy, Bombay is a valid name, and not a mispronunciation of Mumbai.


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