Thursday, March 22, 2012

What’s that name again?

Large numbers of people from Britain poured into southern Africa, particularly after the discoveries of diamonds and gold, as well as after the Anglo-Boer War.  And why not?  The weather was wonderful; the prospects good; land was plentiful and inexpensive; and there was an abundant supply of cheap Black labour.
This labour force made many Whites very rich.  And many could now afford servants, which made life very comfortable.  Many immigrants suddenly became very important, at least in their own eyes, and enjoyed a luxurious lifestyle that they could never have afforded in the old country. 
These Brits also brought with them their well known lack of linguistic expertise. 
So they had great difficulty pronouncing the names of their servants.  Can you imagine their efforts to summon Sifiso, or Bhekizizwe, Khanyisile, Nkosingiphile, Nkosiphendule, or Samukelisiwe.  Or Cikizwa or Khwezi or Tsholofelo or Xolani.  Even harder would have been trying to master the various clicks that are part of the various indigenous languages.
The result, of course, was that many servants were called by English names, such as Zelda, Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Jacob, Edison, Samson, Peter, Robert, Kenneth, etc.  This made it easy for the masters and mistresses to summon their vassals.
However, the practice did not stop at this.  English names became quite fashionable, not only for the sake of the Brits, but within the Black communities.  But these communities and families began to give meaning to the names.  So if a family had a child when they thought they couldn’t, it may be called Lucky.  Or if a baby appeared after a long time, it may be called Trymore.  The names of babies began to have very odd names (at least to Western ears).
There was a Zimbabwean soccer player called Have-a-look Dube.
If a child is ill, and it is unclear whether he or she might die, the parents may give it the name Godknows.
If it is raining when the child is born, it may be called Rain, or Smile if it is blessed with a captivating smile.
We have women in the Detective Kubu series called Joy, Pleasant, Happy, Lucky, and so on.  McCall Smith’s protagonist is Precious.
But there are also names that are not so pleasant, such as Hatred or Funeral, and ones that are different, such as Chastity, or Enough – the name of the thirteenth and last child in a very large family.
There are people called Wedding, Everloving, Passion, and Anywhere.

You can run across names such as Justice, Honour, Trust, Gift, Energy, Knowledge, and even a Zambian athlete named Jupiter.
These names add a delight and richness to everyday conversation, but the practice of using English names is diminishing, and there is a growing movement to return to the traditional names.  They may still have meaning, but at least they will be in the local language.  As a Xhosa friend of mine says, “I have an English name for convenience, but I’m not going to do that for my kids.”  She has named her two children with beautiful Xhosa names – Asakona, a girl, and Ahlangene, a boy.
I suspect it won’t be too long before such interesting names will exist only in blogs and history books.
Enough - Thursday


  1. You just triggered a long forgotten memory of an experience my brother had many years ago in Suriname (formerly Dutch Guiana). He worked for Alcoa, the country's largest private employer, and was there to inspect bauxite operations in a remote area. As things turned out, he learned he was the highest ranking Alcoa executive ever to visit that part of the country and the locals turned it into the equivalent of a "royal visit."

    At a dinner held in his honor he noticed his host was not eating the main course. My brother made a joke about whether he should take that as a hint.

    The man said "Oh, no, I'm sure it's fine, it's just that I'm not allowed to eat it?"

    My brother asked why he couldn't and the man said, "It's traif."

    My brother couldn't believe what he'd heard. "Traif" was a Yiddish word for something that cannot be eaten because it was not kosher.

    As surprised as my brother was at hearing "traif" uttered by a native in the wilds of Suriname, the one who'd said it was just as surprised at learning its origins. The man explained that every family (in Suriname?) had a traif, something they were forbidden to eat. And he had no idea of the origins of that practice.

    This is where your piece comes into play, Stan, for the only explanation my brother could come up with tied into those who'd colonized Suriname, predominantly Dutch and English, among which were Jews. Somehow, contact between the country's Jewish community and its indigenous population led the latter to adopt the concept of "traif" as a central tradition in their way of life. Much like naming their children.

    Amazing, huh?

  2. My generation, and in my Catholic school, everyone was names for well-known saints. In my classsroom there were three Elizabeths. Mary, Margaret, John, Joseph, Thomas, Patricia, were the names heard repeatedly at attendance.

    Ethnic names were avoided because the family names were obvious enough. My three children hve Irish names as do 7 of my 14 nieces and nephews. Some of them have given their children names that got the eyeballs of the grandparents rolling.