There is an interesting bit of etymological anxiety associated with the crisis in Ukraine and Crimea: are these places called Ukraine or the Ukraine, or Crimea or the Crimea? The question is whether we use a definite articles when referring to these places.
The justification given is that using “the” is offensive, or at least political. Adam Taylor reviews both the cases of Ukraine and Crimea to remind us that some Ukrainians will be upset if you refer to their country as the Ukraine. You can detect some distinct efforts by English speaking commentators not to offend anyone by carefully not using the definite article.
Unnoticed these discussions is the fact that lots of languages regularly use definite articles to describe countries: France in French is La France. We would expect to use a definite article when naming countries; it’s not optional, it’s obligatory. And in fact, you can check this out for yourself by going to the Wikipedia entry for Crimea and clicking on the other languages’ entries. In French, it’s La Crimée. In German, Die Krim. In Italian, La Crimea. In Dutch, de Krim. Same with Ukraine: L’Ukraine, Die Ukraine, L’Ucraina. (In Dutch, though, Oekraïne. No idea why.)
How about Ukrainian and Russian? Well, like most Slavic languages, Ukrainian does not have either definite or indefinite articles. So the Ukraine and Ukraine would both be translated as Україна. Same with Crimea = Крим in Ukrainian and Qιrιm in Crimean Tatar, which also does not have definite articles.
So really, this anxiety is something that is confined to speakers of English, one of the only languages in the world where we are not obligated to use definite articles but sometimes do. An example like the Netherlands doesn’t strike most people as political or offensive because it’s just a straightforward adoption of the Dutch phrase de Nederlanden, which means “the low countries” (and confusingly, is that the Dutch name for the Netherlands actually drops the “the”: it’s Nederland). An example like the Gambia is OK too, because the name just connotes the region surrounding the Gambia river.
So what’s going on? The reason usually given why Ukrainians don’t like the Ukraine is because it translates as something close to “the borderland.” That implies that the territory can only be understood with respect to somewhere else—in this case, Russia. But nothing about taking “the” away gets rid of the etymology of Ukraine! We are still left with a puzzle.
My guess is only tentative, but here we go. “The” reminds an educated speaker what Ukraine means. An analogy: if we called Pennsylvania the Pennsylvania you might think “hmm, I wonder what sylvania means”. For those who are anxious about Ukraine’s geopolitical situation and historical ties to Russia, objecting to “the” is less problematic than objecting to Ukraine, which would call into question what this former Soviet territory ought to be called. Which, when you think about it, might go a long way to helping us understand what’s going in Ukraine right now. As I say, it’s only a guess. The broader point is that however much we may want to respect Ukrainians’ wishes for how we translate their name, it’s not obvious why this is as big of a deal as it is made out to be.
As for Crimea, it’s murkier. Why we often use the Crimea is not clear. The Oxford English Dictionary Online does not provide an entry for Crimea, but it does provide one for Crimean. That definition refers to Crimea using the Crimea. There is some disagreement about the root etymology of Crimea, as coming from the Tatar word qιrιm [= hill] or from the ancient Cimmerians (in Greek: Κιμμέριοι, Kimmerioi) who lived to the north. Either way, I cannot find a good reason why it would be less offensive to say Crimea than the Crimea. And again, it’s not obvious why one is political and the other is not.