Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable. ~W.H. Auden
I feel that the opening quote must be read with this one for a complete context: “The name of a man is a numbing blow from which he never recovers.” ~Marshall McLuhan
I suppose the numbing blow is what results when you bless your child with an “improper name” then, isn’t it? What is an improper name though? Which name choice says a parent has failed their child?
I have friends with the most beautiful names. Bibiana. I got the quote below from her facebook page after she shared it from This is Africa. I say her name every time I talk about her because I just love the sound of it. Mueni. Her name means guest or visitor. Aziza. Ama. Sadya. Wanjiru. Kanyua. Ruvarashe (the Lord’s flower). Rutendo (gratitude). Beautiful.
“Give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right” – Warsan Shire
I suppose, then, Quvenzhané Wallis’ parents hit the nail on the head.
Is this Africa then? Difficult names? I think not. Maybe I should rather say not necessarily. The names might be difficult, yes. But not because that was the primary goal. Instead, it is a mere consequence of the twists and turns of the language. To me, Africa is a meaningful name. A name that says something about the person who bears. A name that says something about the people who bore that child. A name that is a credit to your lineage.
I am yet to hear a name in my mother tongue with a meaning that I don’t recognise immediately. Chipo (gift). Rudo (love). Ruramai (walk a straight path). Paidamoyo (this is where the heart wanted to be). Tinashe (the Lord is with us). Tatenda (We are thankful). Tawanda (we have increased). I have put these names down as they have popped into my head. All of them say something anyone who speaks the language would recognise. This, to me, is Africa. A name, whether easy or pronounce or not, that your child can carry with pride and comprehension.
What does a child know and carry of their name when you call them Apple (maybe they’re the apple of your eye), or North ( they give your life direction). I have a fighting chance of defending names of this kind. Where I’m stumped is when I look at some African-American Names.
1. Barkevious Mingo yes, it’s a real name. NFL Player
2. D’Brickashaw Ferguson. NFL Player
3. Mercedes. This was actually a pretty girl’s name until the Founder of Mercedes-Benz cars named his car after his daughter. The count of Monte Cristo’s girlfriend was actually named Mercedes (the Spanish version). The car has ruined it for people 🙂
Is there a continuity of culture and meaning in these names. Do the names go before your child (on a CV maybe) and say the wrong thing?
While trying to understand the issue of naming children, I came across a couple of interesting reads. The Etiology of Ridiculous Black Names and Black Names. Here are two quotes. One from each read.
“Of course, the vast majority of unusual black names are nothing like Clitoria or Tanqueray. They are names like — to page at random through “Proud Heritage” — the catchy Maneesha and Tavonda, the magisterial Orencio and Percelle, or the evocative Lakazia and Swanzetta. They are names emerging from a tradition of linguistic and musical invention much like those that gave us jazz and rap. And they are names that have paved the way for Americans of all classes and colors to begin to loosen up a stodgy culture of traditional name giving.”
“The sad fact is that the way black people in America name their children reflects an abandonment of culture, and abandonment of history. However optimistically disingenuous white liberals …. spin it, the reality is that their names have no grounding in a larger coherent culture, and there are not larger truths being passed on to black children by their parents. If anything, they are being taught – on a basic level – that rejection of white Western culture is their cultural ideal, their highest truth. So when young Kanthony asks his mama where his name came from, she just shrugs and says, “Well basically I made it up. At least it ain’t white.”