Ambassador Richard Matheron tells us about an amazing exploit early in his Foreign Service career.
I was a young political officer in the American embassy in Yaounde when the territories that became Cameroon were sorting themselves out. Here’s the backstory on that:
The name, but not the spellng, dates back to the 15th century Portuguese explorations of the western coast of Africa. The waters off the coast of equatorial Africa were rich in shrimps (camaroes) and the Portuguese referred to the area as Camaroes.
Sometime later the German occupiers picked up the sound and gave the name Kamerun to the equatorial lands that they were awarded by the Second Conference of Berlin in 1895. They subsequently lost all of their colonies by the Treaty of Versailles after World War I. Kamerun was then mandated partially to France, which named its segment Cameroun, and to the British who called their two segments Northern Cameroons and Southern Cameroons.
The French-mandated territory became independent of France on January 1, 1960, as the République du Cameroun. The two British mandates were allowed to opt to join either Nigeria or the République.. The northerners opted immediately for Nigeria, but the southerners were to choose by voting in a UN-supervised referendum. In September 1961 the southerners voted to join the République du Cameroun but nevertheless wished to maintain English as an official language of government.
This was to be the first unification of two African territories that had previously been ruled by two different colonial powers. With two different official languages, the drafting of new bi-lingual constitution became one of the first orders of business. To assist in the drafting, constitutional lawyers from both Britain and France were invited by the African authorities to assist. They completed their task on the eve of the promulgation of the new bi-lingual constitution. Theoretically, it was ready to go to press.
On the eve of that promulgation, the President’s Chief of Cabinet discovered that the British and French lawyers, having left the country, had deposited their draft with two different spellings in English of the name of the country, both Cameroun (with a u and no s) and Cameroons (with a double oo and an s). What to do?
That late afternoon, shortly after the American Embassy had closed for the day, the President’s Chief of Cabinet telephoned to ask the ambassador for a recommendation on the correct spelling in English for the new nation. Working late in my office, I answered the telephone and told him that the Ambassador had left for the day. The distraught Chief of Cabinet came back with, “If the Ambassador is not there, what do you think the English spelling might be.” I am not sure why he did not call the British Embassy, but I felt the need to be as helpful as possible.
I thought for a moment and came up with the following: “Well, I know you want to emphasize the unity of the nation but also want to maintain the duality of languages. So, why not drop the plural “s” and replace the “ou” with “oo?”
“C’est très logique,” he replied. (That’s logical.)
And that is how Cameroon got its spelling in English. Looking back at my life, I can proudly claim that I have made my mark on the world.
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