That Which By Any Other Name
Genghis Khan - Fashion Statement
I have been restless lately, and in my restlessness, I have pictured myself in far-flung places. Like Mongolia. Last summer an amazing cultural event took place there, one that hardly made a splash in the news in the U.S., but that I haven’t been able to get out of my head: everybody named themselves. What a powerful thing it must have been to label oneself, a pronouncement of who you are condensed into a few syllables or less, and to do so en masse.
The facet of language constituted by names is fascinating. In my own heritage names are very convoluted. For one thing, my mother’s maiden name turns out to be my grandfather’s mother's name, not his true patronymic surname as was used by his brothers. Meanwhile, all of my dad's male siblings share one last name, the same one that I bear, but his sisters all claim and share as their maiden name one that is different than their brothers’ surname. The boys were long on grudges and refused to carry a name of Portuguese origin that is too much a reminder of colonialism.
I was shocked some years ago when my Portuguese cousin Montezuma (who, after spending a few years in England now goes by Monte, pronounced "Monty"), told me that in Portugal, parents must choose names for their children from an official list of government-sanctioned first names. In other words, in Portugal it's possible to have an illegal first name. This new knowledge put his first name in a whole new perspective, not to mention those of his siblings, Anastasia and Boaventura.
The cultural significance of names cannot be understated. MAR (Minorities at Risk) "tracks 284 politically-active ethnic groups throughout the world from 1945 to the present—identifying where they are, what they do, and what happens to them. MAR focuses specifically on ethnopolitical groups, non-state communal groups that have 'political significance' in the contemporary world because of their status and political actions. Political significance is determined by the following two criteria:
- The group collectively suffers, or benefits from, systematic discriminatory treatment vis-a-vis other groups in a society
- The group is the basis for political mobilization and collective action in defense or promotion of its self-defined interests."
For example, though Chinese have been in Indonesia for centuries before the Dutch colonialism of the 1800s, "the group has been compelled to abandon their Chinese names and adopt Indonesian-sounding names in order to acquire [Indonesian] citizenship. Since 1966 Chinese language schools and the use of Chinese language are prohibited." Surnames have such significance in China that a Tenth Century document entitled "The Hundred Surnames" has survived the ages and is still in use. The ancient work is written in poetic form to aid memorization by school children. The 438 names contained therein, "still account for 90% of all Chinese surnames in use. In fact, the top ten surnames account for 40% of the population," with Zhao the most popular.
One name that is easy to remember is that of Malcolm X, the "X" symbolizing among other things, his rejection of his birth name "Little," which he regarded as a legacy of slavery. Black Americans have suffered much owing the loss of the names. Daniel Atkinson, in the liner notes to the Howard Wiley Trio’s Twentyfirstcentury Negro, comments on the process by which “we as blacks have been painted into a social, economic, and cultural corner.” Amongst the few weapons of slavery he lists is “changing our names and destroying our languages.”
In 1920s Mongolia, a Communist effort to eradicate the clan system, class structure, and hereditary aristocracy, led to the abolition of all family names. Gradually, over decades of existing only on a first-name basis, the majority of Mongolians all but forgot their ancestral names. As Gordon York noted in a Globe and Mail article, it was “a system that eventually became confusing when 9,000 women ended up with the same name, Altantseteg, meaning ‘golden flower.'” Don’t laugh. I read elsewhere that in some areas of Germany, it’s not uncommon within a family for all the sons or all the daughters to bear the same first name, most typically Johann for the boys and Anna for the girls.
However, as far last names go, genealogist Rhonda R. McClure states that surnames are a “modern contrivance.” The Romans were the first to use cognomina, or family names, but the concept didn’t really catch on in Europe until the 13th and 14th centuries, tracking the development of commerce. Countries and regions known for trade adopted the institution of surnames more quickly than in places that were primarily agricultural or pre-modern. More modern yet then is Mongolia.
After Mongolian democracy was reestablished in the 1990s, a law was enacted in 1997, requiring the people to take on surnames. However, the changeover was not immediately embraced. The majority of Altantsetegs and everyone else only got on board with the new ordinance when a system of mandatory citizenship cards was instituted. Still, by last year more than 10,000 of the country’s 2.5 million people had not yet complied, despite compelling reasons to do so. York noted, “One name might be enough when most people were nomadic herdsmen in remote pastures, but now the country was urbanizing. The one-name system was so confusing that some people were marrying without realizing they were relatives.”
It makes me wonder what other names were in vogue for girls besides “Golden Flower.” For instance Donna Przecha’s “The Importance of Given Names” affirms comically that some of the virtue names of Victorian-era New England—names like Prudence and Charity and Patience—“appear quite strange to modern ears. In view of 20th century meaning, ‘Freelove’ does not seem to be an appropriate name for a daughter!” I’ll say! A name like that would definitely have caused confusion in San Francisco, let alone Mongolia.
But it’s usually surnames that identify familial relationships. Last summer, the Mongolian government cracked down, fining anyone failing to get a citizenship card before the national election in June. Virtually overnight, civil registration offices were flooded with those eagerly or reluctantly awaiting the opportunity to legalize their last names.
How cool is that? It's like birth of a nation’s collective consciousness, with thousands of people simultaneously transitioning into a different order of metaphysical significance. That may sound melodramatic, but names are wrought with many things that affect us, even subconsciously, and don’t think the Mongolian’s didn’t know that.
Many chose carefully. The director of Mongolia’s Central State Library, Serjee Besud, published Advice on Mongolian Surnames with maps and lists of regionally historical names. In addition to suggesting that some choose the name of a mountain or river in their ancestral region, York paraphrased Besud’s comments that “others prefer the name of an ancestral occupation: Blacksmith, Herdsman or Writer. Some names are linked to clans: White Camel or Black-and-White Horse. And some names have more obscure origins. One surname in the book … is Seven Drunk Men.”
Elsdon C. Smith reports that in the United States, 43 percent of surnames are based on a location with most of the remaining names being either from the father’s name (patronymics), reflective of a job or occupation, or derived from some kind of action—like seven men sittin’ around gettin’ smashed.
The most popular name chosen by these modern Mongols turned out to be Borjigin, meaning “master of the blue wolf.” A reference to Mongolia’s creation myth, Borjigin is also the tribal name of Chingis or Genghis Khan. Said Besud, “It’s like fashion. But it has no meaning if everyone has the same name. It’s like having no name at all.” A factory payroll manager whom York interviewed said, “I don’t like [ the idea of appropriating the Genghis Khan name]. You should have your original name. If you use a different name, it means you have different blood.”
His comment reminds me of the institution of women changing their names when they marry. I’m not saying that it’s wrong or bad, but I don’t think I could do it. I always think, how could I be one person my whole life and then suddenly become someone else?” because that’s how I’d see it. Other’s clearly don’t view it that way, or, if they do, they are happy to become this new someone. One friend of mine changed her name when she married and almost immediately she became a more confident person. She was able to leave a lot of baggage behind by shedding the name associated with her childhood self.
In The Healing Wisdom of Africa, Malidoma Somé writes, “A person’s purpose is … embodied in their name, thus constituting an inseparable reminder of why the person walks here with us in this world.” I suspect he was referring more to given, or first names, but a similar degree of importance attached to names is present in many Native American belief systems as noted in the Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees:
“The Indian regards his name, not as a mere label, but as a distinct part of his personality … and believes that injury will result as surely from the malicious handling of his name as from a wound inflicted on any part of his physical organism. This belief was found among the various tribes from the Atlantic to the Pacific and has occasioned a number of curious regulations in regard to the concealment and change of names. It may be on this account that both Powhatan and Pocahontas are known in history under assumed appellations, their true names having been concealed from the whites until the pseudonyms were too firmly established to be supplanted. Should his prayers have no apparent effect when treating a patient for some serious illness, the shaman sometimes concludes that the name is affected, and accordingly goes to water, with appropriate ceremonies, and christens the patient with a new name….”Maybe that’s why an unasked for nickname can rub the wrong way: you neither want to admit that you are what others see reflected in you or you don’t want to become that which others ascribe to you. Canadian Albert J. Parker, founded The Kabalarian Philosophy in 1930. Followers adhere to "a logical explanation of mind and its relationship to mathematics, language, and consciousness," which extends to names. A brief analysis of my first names (I consider myself to have two) was most interesting in that the names couldn't be more different from one another and yet, the traits attributed to both of them are pretty similar and do seem to be representative of me. I'll leave you in suspense on that one. Try your own name out though. Also keep in mind that in the Kabalarian belief system, one's birthdate and the family surname must be considered together to present an accurate picture.
During the same reverie that got me down this trail, I thought changing my name to Genghis. Then I found about that by Kabalarian definition, the name indicates: "You could organize the work of others, though in your impatience to see the job done efficiently, you would likely step right in and do it yourself." Genghis doesn't seem like the the right type of name for someone who is most naturally suited to living a life of leisure. Maybe I'll put Mongolia and the name change on the backburner.