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What’s in a name? Probably quite a bit more than you expect

GARRY ROCHE What's in a Name

DUBLIN – Papua New Guinean writers may find it useful and educational to research the meaning of the names in the language of their own locality.

In most languages, personal names and family names have meanings. For example the original meaning of “Peter” is “Rock” and the name Stella means “Star”.

It may be that parents nowadays choose a name for a child more because of sound rather than meaning, but it is still interesting to ponder the meaning of PNG names.

I look at the names of some of the writers who contribute to PNG Attitude and wonder what they mean. I look at politicians names and wonder if they have meaning.

In the Hagen area some personal names are taken  from the names of birds or animals or  insects.

A former politician from Western Highlands was Raphael Doa. Doa (also spelt ndoa) is the name for an eagle. Paraka, another common Hagen name is Melpa for the Ragianna Bird of Paradise. Goimba is a type of grasshopper. Watinga is a type of possum.

Former Governor Robert Lak’s name would have originally been pronounced lgak and refrred to “layers” or “things piled on top of each other”.

Olga can mean “above” or “on top” (not to be confused with oka which is a sweet-potato). The name Wingti means “holy” or “sacred”. Wamp means “people”.

Some Hagen names related to skin complexion. Poembra indicated a dark or black skin and Kund a light or red skin.

Some language groups also had pair-names. For example in the Hagen (Melpa) language you might find two male cousins one of whom was called Timbi and another called Raime. Timbi is the Hagen name for “wild pig” and Raime is a “cassowary”.

Dum and Data are also pair names. Likewise two female cousins might be called Mipil and Rangunt, the names of stars. Mants and Rong form another pair of names given to related females.

I am sure other language or cultural groups are equally rich in the meaning of personal names. However some of this knowledge will be lost if not written down.

I do not have an extensive knowledge of Hagen names, but what I do know I have found fascinating and instructive. I believe that research into the meanings of local personal and family names would be rewarding and informative.

Some familiarity with PNG names can also help expatriates avoid confusion.

An Australian manager of a trucking company based in Hagen told me that he had decided to get to know the names of his drivers.

So one morning he called them together and asked their names. He said to the first driver, “What’s your name?”, receiving the answer “Kerua”, which he wrote down.

He asked a few more drivers and then one driver said, “Why?”

The irate manager retorted, “Why am I asking for your name? Because I want to know, that’s why!”

The other drivers quickly explained that the name of the driver was Wai. In fact Wai is not an uncommon name in Hagen, one of the well-known Jika leaders is Wai Rapa.

Many years ago when I was relatively new in PNG, I was taking names of people who wanted to get married.

I knew a bit of the Melpa language and could ask basic questions. So I asked the young bride-to-be, “What is your father’s name?” and she answered, in Melpa, Kurum.

I dutifully entered Kurum as her father’s name in the pre-nuptial form. Later I could not find that name in our card index (Fr Ross had boxes of index cards with names of parishioners) and told the catechist I could not find the card and he laughed.

He explained the young lady had told me that her father was dead (kurum). According to custom she could not call his name, so she simply answered, “he is dead.”

What’s in a name? Maybe sometimes there’s more than we expected.


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Chris Overland

Andy, you are quite right. I got my heirs Apparent and Presumptive confused!

Thank you Raymond for your further comments on the traditional protocols around names.

Andy McNabb

Chris, I think you will find the heir apparent to the British Crown is His Royal Highness Prince Charles Philip Arthur George, who does not seem to have a last/family name. May have forgotten it.

The royal family's surname is Windsor. Male descendants of Queen Elizabeth II (including Charles of course) can also use the surname Mountbatten-Windsor - KJ

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Chris for your additional comment, I'd also like to add that in my traditional society, elders and adult members were not called by their names by children or the young people.

My society is based on kinship and the use of gender words in speech to distinguish male and female in roles and activities. Custom and social norm dictated that people should be addressed using kinship terminologies. It is disrespectful to call a person by name.

For example, in the Arapesh society, the equivalent for father and mother is "yayen" and "yamo". I and my siblings are entitled to address or call our birth mother as "yamo" and birth father as "yayen".

If someone else wants to address or refer to our mother or father, the terminology changes. This person will refer to my mother as "emegek" and my father as "yaken". He or she cannot address my parents as I do

Only the old people and adults can call each other by name. This is why names play an important role in identifying genealogy and origin.

Chris Overland

Gary's post and Raymond's interesting comments caused me to ponder the origin of names.

My own surname originated in Norway, probably around Telemark. It then either migrated to England with a very distant relative or, maybe, the same name arose there independently.

This uncertainty exists because the name means the same thing (high ground) in both Old Norse and Old English.

The use of a "tokples nem" mentioned by Raymond was, I think, fairly common in England and Europe until the requirement for a unique identifying name arose sometime in the Medieval period.

My guess is that my ancestors must have occupied land in a hilly area and so were colloquially identified by this fact. It therefore made sense to adopt the name as a surname.

Interestingly, the quite formal Roman system of naming people did not persist in either England or Europe after the collapse of the Empire.

A Roman citizen of any note had three names: a personal name used by his family and close friends, his clan name which placed him somewhere in the wider social order and a formal name, by which strangers would address him.

Thus Gaius Julius Caesar, the great Roman Dictator, was called Gaius by his wife and family, identified as a member of the important Julian clan by his second name and known formally in his public life by his "official" name of Caesar.

The English aristocracy later adopted a somewhat similar system. Their names were intended to reflect their aristocratic heritage and remind them and others of their impeccable credentials as members of England's ruling class.

Even today, the Heir Apparent to the British throne is Prince William Arthur Philip Louis Windsor, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, etc, etc.

His name positively drips with historic significance in that it neatly links him to his noble German, Greek, Scottish and English ancestors. These names collectively shout that the bearer is very, very, very royal!

For us lesser mortals, our names have less obvious significance, but we should take pride in our "tokples nem" anyway which, hopefully, Papua New Guineans ontinue to do.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you Fr Garry for this piece.

I would also like to add that apart from names derived from local languages, others came about as a result of the use of Pidgin and English during the colonial era.

These names, which are usually surnames, were derived from occupations or jobs done by the name bearers' fathers or grandfathers during the colonial period.

The evolution and colonial roots of such names caused these names to be unique in form and identity. The use of such names identify someone to a specific family lineage traced back to a grandparent or grandparents during the colonial era. These surnames cannot be duplicated or used by another person because of their history.

For example, the surname of the former open member for Maprik, Gabriel Kapris, came from the Tok Pisin words "kap rais" or "one cup of rice" in English.

This name came about because Gabriel's father once worked for the South Seas missionaries as a cook. As a cook, he was called "Kap rais" and he eventually adopted the name, changing it to Kapris.

Gabriel had to defend his surname publicly in the print media some years back during the trial of the infamous PNG bank robber, William Kapris. He stated that William's real surname was Kapis and not Kapris.

He was correct in saying that William lied about his name during the time of his arrest but William's name had already been registered in the court files and documents and as such, couldn't be changed again by the courts.

Gabriel Kapris only wanted to protect his father's name and distance himself from William because his family name was being tarnished with its use by the media and the high level of public interest in the case.

I personally pondered over my surname and its meaning for some time when I was still in school. I enquired about this with my father but he didn't know and couldn't help me.

It wasn't until recently, about a year ago, that I found out that my surname has colonial roots and was derived from the English word "sea man".

It was a nickname given to my paternal grandfather who once worked on a boat as a young man at Salamaua, Morobe before the war. The name stuck but changed in pronunciation and spelling when my grandfather began to use it.

My grandfathers and grandmothers (both paternal and maternal) used Christian (or first names) alongside their fathers' names. Their use of first names may have occurred, by my estimate, at the turn of the 1900s after the Catholic missionaries had established themselves in the local area.

Prior to that, in my society, people had only one name. Their single names did not necessarily mean anything but were " personal" names of ancestors and associated with landmarks, locations or places of origin. These names were passed down and were associated with clans and tribes.

Today, these names are referred to as " tokples nem" in Tok Pisin and are inserted between the first name and surname. The old people and folks in the village can only identify someone and his or her family lineage through the tok ples names or ancestor names.

With the increase in births per family and population, the practice of passing down tok ples village names is becoming a problem because these names are few in between.

Some families are now using common names or borrowed names or even nicknames as middle names. Others have excluded altogether the use of passing down tok ples names to their children.

Traditional and derivative names are important sources of history, identity and origin. With modernisation and the changing trend society, many Papua New Guineans are now using "double" first names like Michael Douglas or Peter John or Mary Paul.

The use of such names tend to remove all traces of ethnic roots and social identity from the bearer. Their names now become just names without a Papua New Guinea feel and identity.

Mathias Kin

Kaupa can be Kauba or Hauba in the different dialects of Simbu, especially the non-Kuman languages in Simbu. Kaupa means a bird.

Simbus also use names from other birds like Sine,Kawale, miulge, Omen and Bamen etc.

They also use names of strong trees in the forests like Yoba, and Simbus use direction of the sunrise and sunset and the headwaters and where a river disappears to name groups of people.

For Arebengua yal in the Keri language means the man from Sun down place.

Martyn Awayang Namorong

My name is Awayang - actually Awe Ang but the patrol officers referred to old man Awe-ang as Awayang.

Awe means Savannah
Ang means from or of

Awe and means someone from the Savannah. I am from the East Trans Fly Savannah of South Fly District, Western Province.

John K Kamasua

Interesting indeed!

Some names have rich histories behind them. In particular, people are very particular about how they got their names.

I do not know about other provinces or cultures, but in Simbu few names like John Kaupa are popular.

We now have the Member for Moresby North-East John Kaupa, who finally won the seat after trying for many years.

Many people confused him with me and started calling to congratulate me on my victory and been given the Housing Minister. They even texted my mobile!!

Garry Roche

Philip, I think "Nigints" is a red bird, maybe a parrot. Clement Papa can correct me. Re pair names, thanks Clement , perhaps also "Kundump" and "Mara" names of trees are also pair names.

Doug Robbins

Keith Buxton in his “The Golden Years” talks about a Kofure girl by the name of Darling. Upon a return trip to Tufi, on arrival at the airstrip he was greeted by this young attractive girl with “Hello Keith” to which he replied “Hello Darling” – to many sideways glares of suspicion from his Tour Group. Our time at Tufi about the same time in the early 70s she was the Headteacher’s housegirl and, being married with small child, he couldn’t bring himself to calling her Darling. It was always by her other name, Grace.

Clement Papa

Garry adding to your list of pair names in Melpa, Kuri and Paraka, Mek and Rumba, Kuk and Kaka, Pup and Papa!

Philip Fitzpatrick

Don't forget 'Nigints' - I believe it means red.

And how many men were called 'Akis' around Hagen in the 1960s?

In Western Province a common name was APC - Australian Petroleum Company.

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