The great Shibboleth

I have a confession to make. As a card-carrying letsgetalongerist and liberal Eurotrash it feels like an admission of failure, even treason. But after reading this article in the National Geographic (an advertorial, but even so), the spirit moves me.

I despise “Derry~Londonderry”.

Not the place, of course. I have nothing against the buildings, streets or burghers of the city, and even if I did the old saying “people who live in Portadown shouldn’t throw stones” comes to mind. No, it is the name that makes my hackles rise every time I see it written down – or worse, hear it spoken.

For not only is it an offence against both language and typography, it contains in its seventeen bytes a microcosm of everything that is broken with Northern Ireland.

Its double-barrelled structure displays the shared-out, zero-sum vision that gave us two First Minsters (itself a hate crime against mathematicians), two teacher training colleges, and two jubilee cities. We can’t share, so we’ll have one each. Never mind that neither side is really as bothered about the name as they like to pretend (ask an Orangeman to sing the Sash). It’s all about going through the motions, like the strutting-peacock changing of the guard at the India-Pakistan border. We enjoy it. It’s sport.

But even the double-barrelled name is broken, because it doesn’t represent a synthesis. It’s not just less than the sum of its parts, it’s less than one of its parts. Rather than an embracing union of heads and tails, night and day, or old and new, it’s a quantum superposition of existence and nonexistence. To London or not to London, that is the question. And because you can’t have half a London, the only way to be fair is to have two Derrys. Derry~Derry.

And that tilde. Or is it a swish? Either way, a symbol used only by mathematicians, dictionaries and Unix programmers (I’m at least two of those three). A diagonal stroke would evoke the linguistic frivolity of the late Gerry Anderson, hardly the image of a city trying to be taken seriously. Hyphens are abrupt. Derry-Londonderry. Too fast. Automatic fire. Can’t have that. But there’s a hesitance about a tilde, a questioning that gives one pause, like an apostrophe-riddled scifi planet that needs a mental dry run before committing to.

The unsquarable circle of unstoppable Micks and immovable Prods requires that some compromise is made. But every time I see “Derry~Londonderry” (ugh, I wrote it again) I can’t help but think that the wrong compromise was made. Trillions have been poured into branding and promotion, so I’ll have to live with it. But I wish they’d asked me first, because the solution is of course blindingly obvious.


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