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Racial slur removed from name of island in Eastern Finland

The island's owner changed the name in the real estate register, but the old name remained on official maps.

Kuvassa on saarella oleva mökki.
The island's name has been a subject of discussion on social media. Image: Taru Väänänen

The contentious name of an island in Eastern Finland called Neekerisaari (roughly translated in English as N-word Island) will be changed, the Institute for the Languages of Finland (KOTUS) confirmed in a press release on Wednesday.

The institute and the National Land Survey of Finland originally objected to the name change proposal submitted in September last year by the holiday island's owner, the North Karelian Journalists' Association.

Kotus previously said it objected to the change because the "unpleasantness" of the name was not reason enough for it to be officially changed.

"The name of the island has caused a debate within our association and on social media in recent years," Taru Väänänen, chair of the North Karelian Association of Journalists, told Yle. "We find the name derogatory and offensive, which is why we wanted to change it."

The island is located in the Liperi archipelago of North Karelia, near Pyhäselkä, a traditional holiday area with a number of cottages.

NGO: Name derogatory in context

KOTUS changed its position on the matter on Wednesday when it said authorities should not use racist expressions.

"In practice, the spelling-standardised name on the map directs authorities and citizens to use the name [but] in this case it also involves the use of a name known to include a racist expression," the release said.

The institute said it would like to emphasise that this is an exception and that in principle there is no reason to change names and naming conventions on maps.

The word "neekeri" has almost always been used in a derogatory context in Finland, according to Aurora Lemma, co-chair of the anti-racism organisation Fem-R.

"To people who say it is not a racist word, I say you can't look at a word without the context. The n-word in the Finnish context has almost always been used as a derogatory term and the people who have been called that have been discriminated against. Finland has always had racism, so you can't pretend that the word has existed here without this context," Lemma said.

New name for island, but not on maps

The name of the island was changed to Uutinen, meaning news in English, in the real estate register last year. The association justified the change as the Finnish n-word has been extensively removed from general usage and is broadly considered derogatory.

"We do not want to use vocabulary that supports racism, hatred and violates other people's human rights," Väänänen said.

However, changing the name of the island on official maps proved to be challenging with Kotus objecting to the change.

"Kotus' stance surprised us," Väänänen added.

The matter was then forwarded by Kotus for consideration by the National Land Survey of Finland, an official body which deals with cartography issues in Finland.

In an explanation of its initial decision that the name would remain the same on maps, the National Land Survey pointed to telephone interviews conducted by Kotus which found that the island is still known by its former name among local residents.

The body had also said it had no power to change the names of places.

Name originates from printing press slang

The name of the island first began appearing on maps in 1974, and Väänänen said its etymology is remembered by older generations of the association, as the island was so called because at the time "lehtineekeri" was a common term in the media and print industry in Finland.

"The name came from printing ink, which [coloured] the hands and face," Väänänen explained. "Printing work was very messy. The name refers to that, but one may ask whether it was a very tactful expression even then."

The Journalists' Association hopes that the new name, Uutinen, may gradually become more established.

"We have done our best, and we will use the name Uutinen for the island. We believe that when the name of a place becomes more commonly used, people get familiar with the new name," Väänänen added.

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