Know Thyself

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By Imran Abdallah Said

“What’s in a name?

That which we call a rose

By any other name would

Smell as sweet.”

-William Shakespeare

 In my quest to find the meaning of the name given to my hometown, I stumbled upon a rather funny story. It must have been my granny who told it to me. She said long ago, when the ‘wazungus’ arrived in our country, they sought the name of their new settlement from the locals. For some odd reason, they didn’t just go ahead and decide to name it after one of their kings or queens like they always do.

 Anyway, for obvious reasons, inter-cultural communication during the Middle Ages presented a major challenge to all citizens of the world as there was considerably less contact between people from different continents back then. So, as the story goes, the locals resorted to asking this honest question, and I quote: “Mwambaze?” Which translates to “What are you saying?” in one of the Mijikenda dialects.

So the visitors clung to the first word they heard, maybe they really believed that the locals had understood their question or they simply found the name catchy, who knows? What matters is that the name stuck and as it was passed on from one accent-heavy tongue to the next, it evolved over the centuries into the name we’ve all come to adore: “Mombasa”.

 Soon this got me thinking, what is the story behind the names of other places, or even people? In spirit of the Greek aphorism “Know Thyself”, I set off to find the essence of my own name first, hoping there might be a glamorous story behind its origins too. It means “one with long life and abundant wisdom” by the way, thanks very much for asking. Note that ‘abundant wisdom’ is the key phrase here.

 The history of names in general is quite obscure so its origin is not really easy to pinpoint. For the religious among us, it is likely very easy to describe the origin of all names. As with all things it must be tied to the story of the creation of the entire universe, when all things were named by God and then taught to Adam, Adam being the first name ever given to a human, end of the story.

For the not-so-religious, the origin is yet to be discovered conclusively. Historians however place the earliest instance of using names between 6600 to 6200BC when the Chinese used an intricate system of symbols on their pottery to mark ownership. The symbols, called Jiahu Symbols, were not really part of any particular language, just personalized symbols to distinguish your property from your neighbour’s, like a family crest, you see? It turns out the earliest name ever recorded was Gal-Sal (3200-3100 BC), which belonged to a slaver (not such happy origins after all).

 Earlier names seemed to have a descriptive meaning behind them, like Neithhotep (“Neith is satisfied”) the first ever recorded name for a woman according to historians. Such names still exist among many communities the world over, most notably the Native Indians of America who can boast such names as Mikasi(“White Moon”) and Miwok(“Bear walking into Shade”) or less honourable names like Eskaminzim (“Big Mouth”) or Arapoosh (“Stomach Ache”).

 You might be curious about your name too, maybe you should ask your parents and if they can’t tell you maybe you should kick their butt proper. What if your name means something horrible and they just blindly tagged it to you? But please don’t; there is a better alternative. The internet is filled with seemingly infinite resources on origins and meaning of names. Look yours up. Who knows your name might be synonymous to “headache” which might give insight to how you were such a bully at the hospital nursery when you were born. Or you might have one of those “Awww, mum and dad, you guys are awesome” moment when you realize your name means “Child who will conquer the world with his golden heart.” Or something of that sort.

 Right then, thank you for taking your time to read this. I hope you enjoyed it, I certainly enjoyed doing the research.  Bye bye.

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A freelance writer, journalist, poet and blogger venturing mainly in social and community issues, study and analysis of behaviour and life, and the plight of the under-dogs in the society. 'I feed on human stories.'

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