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When is Mount Everest not Mount Everest?
Picture: 10315606rs.jpg

Theodolite used to survey Mount Everest, 1849.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

There are many names for the world’s highest mountain, so why, in the midst of the Himalayas, is one of the most widely used names British? ‘Everest’ was selected by the British in honour of Sir George Everest, once the Surveyor General of the Survey of India. Although a British team determined the mountain’s height in 1852, the irony is that they (and Everest himself) insisted on retaining local place names wherever possible, being vehemently against this choice for the mountain.

The wide adoption of the British name is partly linked to the long association of the mountain with what was, until recently, a very European preoccupation with scaling Everest’s summit. However, the name is now being challenged.

China claims that Everest, or Qomolangma (the ruling Chinese variation for the Tibetan Chomolungma) was first mapped by Tibetans in 1717. The Nepali name for the peak is Sagarmatha. The Chinese want to adopt their variation of the Tibetan name, outlawing ‘Everest’ as a relic of British colonialism in the process. While the renaming of other mountains has set a precedent for this, there is no easy answer as to which of the local derivations would be widely accepted. In the meantime, the world’s highest mountain will continue to be known by many different names by many different people.

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