Dear Straight Dope: Why is “CH” the ISO abbreviation for Switzerland, as seen in Internet domain names (.ch) and the “country” stickers on European cars? “CH” fits none of the languages of Switzerland. Joe
Arnold Winkelried replies:
Joe, have you forgotten so soon that staple of high school Latin classes, the first book of Gaius Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars)? See if the following rings a bell: ". . . quod undique loci natura Helvetii continentur: una ex parte flumine Rheno latissimo atque altissimo, qui agrum Helvetium a Germanis dividit; altera ex parte monte Iura altissimo, qui est inter Sequanos et Helvetios; tertia lacu Lemanno et flumine Rhodano, qui provinciam nostram ab Helvetiis dividit.” For those less versed in the classics I’ll translate: “. . . because the Helvetii are confined on every side by the nature of the place; on one side by the Rhine, a very broad and deep river, which separates the Helvetian territory from the Germans; on a second side by the Jura, a very high mountain, which is [situated] between the Sequani and the Helvetii; on a third by the Lac Léman [Lake Geneva to Americans], and by the river Rhone, which separates our province from the Helvetii.”
Pulling out our trusty National Geographic atlas, we see that the area between the Rhine, the Rhone, the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva is occupied by the political entity known as (drumroll) Switzerland. From Caesar we know that the people living in that area were known to the Romans as the Helvetians or Helvetii. Maybe you see where I’m headed with this. Bear with me, I’m on a roll.
The reason Caesar wrote about the Helvetians is that they decided to migrate en masse to Gaul (present-day France), either because the barbarians from the north (present-day Germany) were encroaching on their territory or because they thought France would be easy pickings. In any case the Helvetians were determined – Caesar says they burned their villages before starting their long march. The Romans, however, didn’t like the idea of hundreds of thousands people on the move close to their territory and forcefully asked them to stay put, which request culminated in the famous (to the Swiss) battle of Bibracte (58 BC) in which the courageous Helvetians were defeated by the dastardly Romans and sent back to their original dwelling place.
Many centuries of Swiss history will now be skipped. In 1848 the Swiss, following the religious civil war of the Sonderbund pitting Catholics against Protestants, wrote a new constitution and had to pick an official name for the country. As you point out, the Swiss are multilingual (having three official languages – German, French and Italian – and four national languages, the aforementioned three plus Romansh AKA Rhaeto-Romanic). To keep everyone happy, the official name for the country was chosen in a neutral language, Latin, using the old Roman name for the country’s people. The confederation of the Helvetians is thus known as Confoederatio Helvetica or CH for short. On Swiss stamps and coins you’ll see either the full name or the abbreviation Helvetia. On the 50 centime, 1 franc and 2 franc coins you can admire a majestic lady standing dressed in robes, carrying a shield and a spear – she’s the Swiss “mascot” if you will, named Helvetia. A close-up of her head is on the 5, 10 and 20 centime coins. The name also survives in the typeface Helvetica, created by the Swiss type foundry Haas in the 1950s and since ripped off by Microsoft and renamed Arial. Apple Computers has their own knockoff of the Helvetica font, appropriately named Geneva.
One may ask: If the Swiss officially call themselves the Helvetians, why do English speakers call them the Swiss? Because Schwyz was the name of one of the earliest Swiss cantons, and the common name of the country is Switzerland, or in the Swiss languages, Schweiz, Suisse, Svizzera or Svizra.
Links of interest:
http://www.admin.ch – the federal authorities of Confoederatio Helvetica – notice at the top right the language choices for the site.
http://www.swissmint.ch/e/products/index.shtml – coinage of Switzerland, showing the legend Confoederatio Helvetica and an artist’s rendition of the noble Helvetia.
http://www.post.ch/SiteOnLine/EN/Accueil/1,1727,12102,00.html – 2003 Swiss stamps. The alert reader will remark that the stamps say “Helvetia” and not “Schweiz.”
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