The Art of Naming Things

…also known as “How in the WORLD do you pronounce that name?!” by Americans.

South Africa is a country rich in many cultures and languages, and if you spend much time here at all you are bound to notice this. From the Afrikaners who named the “Blue Mountains” that because they are blue, to the BaTswana (Tswana people) who take pride in giving their children names which are dripping in meaning. Coming from America where names do not have much meaning (yes, Jennifer does technically mean fair lady-you will see what I mean in a minute), this has been someone new to me, and quite interesting.

More simple names like Mpho (gift), Lesedi (light), Tumelo (faith), or Thabo (pleasure) are pretty straightforward in their meanings. A child named Mpho is a gift to the family, and a PCV was named Lesedi because the family said she brought light into the house. These ones are easy to say, spell, and remember.

Some names offer more of a grammar lesson, and are literal sentences in Tswana mashed into one word. My Tswana name is such a name: Keamogetswe. It means I am welcomed-Ke=I, a=presently/am-ish, and I assume the past tense of “to welcome” is mogetswe, though it isn’t in my dictionary. My family during PST gave it to me because I was welcomed as a daughter in their home. Other intricate names I have seen are:

Goitsemodimo-To know God (Go itse=to know, Modimo=God)

Keaoleboga-I am thankful (Ke a=I am, leboga=thankful, I’m not sure why the o is there though)

Othusitse-He helped (O=third person concord, thusitse=past tense of thusa-to help)

Otlathusa-He will help (O=third person concord, tla=indicates future tense, thusa=help)

Ketshepaone=I trust Him (Ke=I, tshepa=trust, one=pronoun…meaning God here)

And here are the two most hilarious names I have seen thus far-both in the same classroom, but from different families at least.

Mosetsanagape-literally “girl again” which I take to mean “another girl”.

Mosimanegape-literally “boy again” which I again take to mean “another boy”.

I am curious how many kids these two families have, because I would guess the parents feel they have enough kids.

As you can see, many of the names reference God, and they are not chosen because they are pretty or the family likes it. The one who named their child Othusitse (He helped) may have suffered from miscarriages or the death of a child, and this child is viewed as a gift from God, which they had been praying for.

I am curious why some children are named sephiri (secret)….what are people hiding?

So, while my name is unpronounceable to all you Americans, it names me happy because I understand how my first host family felt about having me stay there. And although my younger host sister here at site has my same name (only causing a bit of confusion), I choose to keep my first African name.
Next time you name a child, think about what meaning it has. And while I doubt I will see kids walking around with the name Iamhappy or Wegivethanks in America, it would be neat if our names had meaning like African names do.

Oh, and names don’t seem to be gender specific…so I have no clue which students are male and dfemale on paper…



About Jen Lamos

Christ follower. Writer. Permaculturist. RPCV. Photographer. Gardener. Keeper of Chickens. Daughter of God.

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