Monday, February 21, 2005

Names and Naming

The Incredible Relevance of Names and Naming

This article is aimed at building understanding amongst the peoples of South Africa, it may have great relevance for other people around the world and we welcome any positive input.
It is amazing how something as simple as a name, has the potential for uniting or alienating people. A greater understanding of how and why people are named, and the relevance of names, may assist in improving respect and thereby relationships. This is a brief look at this topic.
People from European ancestry generally select names for their children from lists of names, currently popular names, family names or after friends. Often the names of currently famous people are chosen for the new-born, for example soccer supporters may choose David - for David Beckham, and a girl may be called Davidia! Other more "New Age" families may choose names from nature, such as "Storm" or "Sky". Or, to secure the child’s future, names such as "Peace" or "Amor."
Names often have deeper meanings, Brian means "the Brave" and Liam comes from William, which in turn comes from the German "Wilhelm" - meaning "unwavering protector." There are many books listing the origins and meaning of such names.
Religion plays a strong role and names from the Bible come to the fore in Christian-based societies. Take for instance France, where a child may only be named after a Catholic saint, note the names of Jean, Jean-Pierre, Henri etc.
Amongst Afrikaners, family names are often chosen. Many of these names have been in the family for centuries. A school friend of mine was named Antonie Gerhardus Wilhelmus van Antena Coetzee, the respect for ancestry is evident in his naming. Often friends would abbreviate long names to initials, for example Pieter Kornelius van Jaarsveld may become know as PK.
Certain groups of people have a pre-disposition to abbreviate a person’s name. Richard becomes Rich, Rick or Dick. Theodore becomes Theo, Teddy or Ted. William could be Will, Bill, Willie or Billy! Perhaps this can be ascribed to this cultural group’s strong focus on time. It is seen to be "friendly" to use a less formal name. This attempt to "build" relationships often has the opposite effect where the relevance of a name is lost in the shortening.
Another interesting habit is that of asking for "an easier name". "Please give me a name that I can pronounce." When given a name that at first sounds difficult to the ear, an attempt may be made to shorten the name or in the past the person was asked for an "English" name.

This went even further as many priests, when baptising a child, would give the child "an easier name". This was in addition to the chosen name given by the child’s parents. In South Africa these names were invariably English in English-speaking areas and Afrikaans, in Afrikaans-speaking areas.

African names, given by parents, have relevance to the prevailing circumstances within the family, the community or the country when that child is born. As such African names are of critical relevance and normally commemorate the order of birth, an event in society, an event in the family... Dr. Bruce Bennett, a senior lecturer at the University of Botswana ( has this to say..

"Concerning Setswana and SeSotho names. The first point to note is that the classic way of naming people in most Southern African societies was different from the western pattern of having a set of established names from which you choose. Rather, names were CREATED for each individual. They often marked some event, either about the birth or just current events.
This is similar to what you read in the Old Testament, "therefore he was given the name ----, because ----" i.e. a name marks an event. The event is NOT necessarily positive. E.g. when the colonial authorities first introduced poll tax many people were named after it - it was the big event of the time.

Many of the names require complex explanation, as they literally mean things like "they are eating", "witchcraft", "trouble" etc. etc. and the meaning really requires an explanation of the circumstances.
However, I should say that there IS also a tradition of names used either because a child is named after someone else or names used almost like western customary names. For example
"Mpho", = "gift", is a very common name. It does imply that the child is being welcomed as a gift, but it is almost a customary name like "Mary" or "John". However I would say that even in this case the meaning is much more in the foreground than would be the case for a westerner."

Nguni Names
Another example is the naming of the famous Zulu King Shaka kaSenzangakhona, this comes from: "Shaka was born in 1787. His father was Senzangakhona kaJama, chief of the Zulu people, who lived in the Mkhumbane valley, south of the White Mfolozi river. Shaka's mother, Nandi, was betrothed to his father at the time she fell pregnant, but they were not yet married. When she first reported this fact the Zulu elders indignantly dismissed her claims, suggesting instead that she was suffering from an intestinal parasite, a stomach beetle called 'ishaka'. When her son was born, she ruefully named him Shaka in recollection of this insult."
In the USA, and in recent years in South Africa, it has become the norm to ask for a person’s first name and use that in order to de-formalise and build relationships. This is seen to be more "friendly". (In the USA school system, when speaking to, about or amongst adults, the use of the more formal Mr and Mrs is the norm - particularly when referring to teachers and the Dean)
More African culture issues
It is not polite, or acceptable, in many African cultures, to greet a married person by his/her first name - be it and African or Western name. Generally it far more important to use that person’s surname or most important ancestor’s name. Amongst the Zulus it is respectful and honourable to address them by their isi(izi)thakazelo (praise name/s). (The use of first names is acceptable and expected for unmarried people in these groups - or by their parents of married people.)
For example, Ndlovu would be known as Gatsheni; and Khuzwayo as Gumede. A married lady would be addressed as Mrs (Nkosikazi) followed by their married surname, or by her maiden surname/ isithakazelo eg. as MaNdlovu, MaGatsheni or MaKhuzwayo or MaGumede. The married AmaXhosa ladies would similarly be addressed as Mrs (Nkosikazi), followed by their married surname, or by her maiden surname MamaRabebe/ MaRadebe - or by her isiduko - MamaMthimkhulu/ MaMthimkhulu.

This is hugely respectful because of the importance of respecting one’s ancestors in most African cultures. (Surnames and ancestral names guide Nguni people on which families they can, or can’t marry into.)
We received this feedback from a delegate in a Celebrating Humanity© courses: "Thank you for making me believe in myself and to re-unite me with my roots and not to try and comprise my own name for other people. As of today I will start reclaiming my name back which was unlawfully destroyed by the system of the past." See for more info...

Some people often automatically offer their "Western/ English" name and never give others the opportunity to learn their traditional or preferred name/s. I found that in Zambia my respect for culture and ability to speak African languages opened people up to share their African names.
South Africans of Indian Descent
Names are very relevant to South Africans of Indian descent. (Many of whom have surnames which were mis-spelt by the British administrators, upon the arrival of the 1st indentured Indian labourers in 1860.)
When a child is born to a Hindu family, the family makes an appointment with the Brahman (Hindu priest) to "open the book". A letter of the alphabet is allocated to the parents, according to the alignment of the planets and various other spiritual aspects which relate to the child’s time of birth. From this letter a name is chosen - normally with religious importance. "Arthi,
Arthie or Aarti" all pronounced the same way, mean "Flame" and these girls are named after a very important Hindu prayer. Each Hindi child is also given a secret Rasi name, revealed only to the parents, chosen by a Brahman from the Panchan a holy book.
South African Hindus often have shortened versions of their names to make it easier for people to pronounce and to remember. Rajendran may be known as Raj... Aniel may become Neil.
Namkaran is the traditional Hindu Indian practise of naming the baby child. Nama literally means 'name' and karana means 'to make, to effect'.
The Namkaran is held at home or in a temple where the father of the child whispers the name in the child's right ear. The ceremony usually takes place on the twelfth day after birth. Choosing a Hindu name is a difficult process. Friends and relatives are invited celebrate the namkaran ceremony.
According to the Grihyasutras, there are 5 requisites to selecting a name for the baby. This is the name that the child is will be called. It depends on the culture, religion & education of the family, and should be auspicious.
1. The name of the baby should be easy to pronounce and sound pleasant.
2. The baby name should contain a specified number of syllables and vowels.
3. The name should indicate the sex of the baby.
4. The baby' name should signify wealth, fame or power.
5. The name should be suggestive of the caste of the family."
Hindu surnames often indicate caste or profession although, in South Africa, a person’s caste no longer holds the same relevance as it does in India. For example people with the surnames Patel and Soni are often in the Jewellery trade. A Brahman comes from the Maharaj family - thus a Brahman is often known as the "Maharaj."
Islamic naming Traditions
In the Muslim community names are mostly chosen for religious relevance and/ or deeper meanings. Names of the Prophet’s wives are sometimes used for females and the males are sometimes named after other religious figures.
For example some male names and meanings:- Malih: A reciter of Quran was so called. Malik: Master.
Some female names and meanings:- Fatimah: A daughter of the Prophet (PBUH) Fatinah: Captivating, alluring, intelligent. Fawzia: Success, Salvation.

Note: (S.A.W - is an abbreviation of the Arabic "salalaahu alayhi wassallum" translated as "peace be upon him" (PBUH.) When the Prophet’s (PBUH) name is used, by followers of Islam, it is usually followed with this blessing.
From "One should always remember that the name given to a child is his/her first gift in life. Therefore please always choose names that have pleasant and beautiful meanings just like our Prophet (SAW) did.
People name their children to distinguish them from others. The child must be named on the seventh day. According to a Hadith a child must be named promptly on birth. The name must be meaningful. "You will be called by your name on the day of judgment" this is another reason why it is important to chose a name with good meaning. The prophet was very particular about it and he always changed names that were derogatory. An example is that he changed Aasiyah (disobedient) into Jameelah (beautiful).
A child must not be given the name of Allah unless it is compounded with Allah. According to a Hadith the worst of men on the day of judgement will be one who is called Shahinshah. only Allah Ta'ala is king of kings or Shahinshah; Kingdom belongs to him alone.
Further parents must make sure that the names they select signify servitude to Allah alone and to no one else. They must not append bondage even to the name Nabi. Names that reflect love or romance must not be used either. The Prophet has suggested names of the Prophets or Abdullah and Abdur Rahman. He has said, "Keep the names of the noble Prophets, Allah loves most the names Abdullah and Abdur Rahman. The most truthful names are Harith and Humam, while the most disliked are Harb and Murrah (war and bitter)."

To some people names are not of great relevance - my late father used to say, "You can call me anything but don’t call me late for breakfast!".
On the other hand to many people names are of critical relevance. It takes very little time to learn a new name with it’s "different" sounds and practice makes perfect!

All it takes is a simple question, "How would you prefer me to address you?" And if it seems "difficult", try and try again until you get it right! The simple use of a person’s true (or chosen) name/s will lay a great foundation for future relationships!

Brian Moore© 17 October 2003
Call +2731 205 3668
Mthimkhulu International
At the level of respect all people are equal"
Transformational Teambuilding, Diversity Training and Diversity Management Specialists.


At 10:38 AM, Blogger Lyn said...

I don't read *that* many blogs – but it's exciting how much you pick up about top ten baby names! I remember learning a theory about top ten baby names in one of my psychology classes which said that people prefer things to either be either new and simple, or familiar and complex. Celebr e, do you think that applies here?

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