the name game

What’s in a name?

Well, letters. And for most Americans that’s about all we know or potentially care about. To us (or at least to me), names are strings of letters to which we have been trained to respond (thanks, Pavlov). They’re syllables that either produce a pleasant sound, maintain a family tradition, honour a significant individual, or are simply to be unique (I met someone named Jhaysyn once…I bet he’s had lots of fun at the DMV). In South Africa, the answer to the aforementioned question is vastly different. Here, names mean something; everything. Now, I know that our English names do have underlying meanings, but they’re never at the forefront of our minds as we actually say the words. For example, Laura means “queen of laurel leaves” (referencing victory – solid choice, Ellen), but to us it sounds a little goofy to ask, “Hey, Queen of Laurel Leaves, can I get another refill of sweet tea?” So, here are some cool examples of Zulu people I’ve met whose names have a special and specific meaning when directly translated…

–  Phendile: Answered (she was the firstborn so her mother said that God had answered her prayers for a child)

–  Zanele: Enough (she was the fourth girl in a row so her mother said she had had…enough)

–  Nkosifezile: God Helps Achieve (she was born after previously unsuccessful trials)

–  Fikile: Arrival (she was the firstborn)

–  Jabulo: Happy or Happiness (his mom was so happy to have a son)

–  Sipho: Gift From God (his mom cherishes him as a…gift from God)

–  Just a list of names and their meanings: Bongiwe (Thanking), Thobeka (Humble), Nokuphiwa (The One Who Always Receives), Khethelo (Chosen), Zama (Try), Mnqobi (Victory), Thubalakhe (Chance), Lindokuhle (Waiting For The Good), Sabelo (Equal Share), Zwelihle (Good Looking Country), Kwazikwakhe (Informed), Nhlanzeko (Cleanliness), Akhona (Present – as in “now”), and the list goes on…

I love learning about the Zulu names. They’re so beautiful and touching and just…groovy. Sometimes, though, I can’t help but daydream about if they were used in a corporate American meeting. The weight of the words in a business environment kinda gives me the giggles. Goofiness ensues…

“Excellent presentation, Cleanliness.”

“Thank you! Could you please pass the quarterly reports to Good Looking Country?”

“Sure. Oh, actually, I don’t have them. I gave them to Humble and I think she gave them to Gift From God, All His Messages Are Good, or Try.”

“Oh never mind, I see them! They’re hiding under The Chosen One’s rolodex.”

“Wonderful. Where is Waiting For The Good with the coffee and cookies? I hope he remembers that Equal Share likes it with two sugars.”

“I’m sure he will. Informed is helping him. I think Arrival is supposed to be helping too, but she’s always late. Ah, here it is now! Thank you, gentlemen. You may start by serving The One Who Always Receives.”

“I hope we get a good Christmas bonus this year. It’d be such a – Victory! I’m so glad you made it, welcome!”

K, I’ll stop. This post is purely to give you all a further glimpse into the Zulu culture, tradition, and ideology. It’s funny; many times people will ask me the Zulu translations of English names and usually I say that I’m unsure but sometimes I’m able to make up something beautiful and heroic (I guess now I can say that Laura means “Mnqobi” – victory!). All in a good day’s cultural exchange. So, whether you have a name given to you because it sounds good, because you’re the XVIII in your family, because it has a special connotation or literal translation, or because you’re The Chosen One, I dare you to love your calling simply because it’s you!

Signing off,

Thandeka Ndlovu (Lovable Elephant)

P.S. I got most of the above translations from Ma’am Khumalo, so it’d be pretty funny (and I wouldn’t put it past her) if she was playing some village initiation prank on me…

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2 Responses to the name game

  1. Erik Hendel says:

    Excellent, as always.

    – Mongezi (Addition)

  2. Emily says:

    Dear Lovable Elephant Who Wears Laurel Leaves, this really gets my long-lasting-love of linguistics going, for sure! And every time I read your blogs, I say, “Okay, THIS was my favorite.” Here I go again. I love you–Aunt Industrious Bee in the Hive

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