Coffee Talk: What’s In a Name?

Imagine if your name meant “scorching pain in the eye.”

Oh dear.  What would your classmates say?  How would that affect your self-image?  Do you think you might, by some unfortunate power of psychosomatic suggestion, always have a pain in your peeper?

And why do people always make that face when they're rubbing something out of their eye - ?

It’s not ideal.  Now add to the scenario: you’re the queen of the eight Hawaiian islands.

Say what now?

For Queen Lili’uokalani (born Lili’u Kamaka’eha), or any Native Hawaiian before the 1860’s, receiving a name with such an odd and specific meaning was more common than you’d think.  Whether queen or peasant, Hawaiians were usually bestowed supremely unique names. They had no “family” surname to pass down and each individual name was considered powerful enough to block or create certain energies directly affecting the person’s mana (Hawaiian equivalent to prana, chi, ki, mojo).

Queen Lili'uokalani, the last ruler of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Hence uber-long names like Kamakanaiho’unamaikalaniakeakua (God’s gift sent from above) or Kamakanaalohamaikalani (a beloved gift from the heavens).

In the nineteenth century, the ten most common names in Hawaii only covered four percent of the population.  Few rules existed, though children were always given names suitable for their social class.

So where did the last queen of Hawaii get her unlucky-sounding name?

At the time her birth, her great aunt suffered from an eye-ache.  Plain and simple.  Good thing her Aunt didn’t suffer from something even less graceful!

Some names transform into legend and come to mean much more than the person they represent: Hitler, JFK, even Gaddafi.  I remember using the phrase “Hey, don’t Gaddafi my popcorn” in high school.  In other words, don’t go seizing my popcorn, dude.

Everyone's favorite leader . . . or else!

My name’s a bit of a mouthful, though thankfully not so much of an ordeal of anguish (in more ways than one.  Queen Lili’uokalani was also our last queen, thanks to a devious – and rather common – strategy employed by the US government.  But that’s the subject of another blog all together).

Named for my grandmother Joan and my gramma Dot (Okiko means orchid in Hawaiian, the primary flower in gramma’s massive garden, Shigeko is also gramma’s middle name, meaning gracious gift in Japanese) – I’m clearly a symbol of my parents’ love for their mothers!

I see my name as a kind of white-bread teriyaki sandwich.  The Joanne and the Kelly are clearly European, and the stuff in the middle is where all the flavah’s at.  Though Joanne sometimes sounds like a farm girl to me, there is that famous actress . . .

Joanne Woodward. Named by her mother in honor of Joan Crawford.

At my second yoga teacher training, this time with the Sivananda school, I was given a fifth name, a spiritual name – by request.  I was curious to see what they would come up with.  Our swami, Yaneshvara, spent hours searching our faces, noting our behaviors both in and out of the classroom (at least, this is what she’s said to us!).

After a few weeks of contemplation, she decided to name me “Jyoti” – light.  It sounds quite similar to my given name – so I’ll probably turn around if someone starts calling me that at the ashram – and I do love the meaning.  But will I use the name?  I’m happy to be called Jyoti at the ashram but if I start asking people to call me that in the ‘real’ world, I might feel a bit . . . self-conscious.

Indian naming systems vary depending on the region.  For example, in Kochi and Travancore, they use the format Family/House Name-Father’s name-Person’s name. OR Father’s name-Person’s name E.g.: A K Antony: Arackaparambil (House Name) Kurian Pillai (Father’s Name with a title) Antony (First Name).  At the end of the day, you just start calling people by their initials.  In this case, A.K.A.  Ha!

One thing most names across the world have in common: they were given to us, like a gift.  Hopefully from the heart, and certainly just for us.  Although there are some gifts that make us cringe – “Ah gee, I’ve always wanted a giant camel ashtray!” – and some gifts that everyone else seems to have already,  a sense of humor and equanimity always helps coming to terms with the linguistic symbol forever attached to our being.

Do like your name?  How much of an influence do you reckon your name has in the way people perceive you?  Has it been a factor in the way you perceive the world?



3 thoughts on “Coffee Talk: What’s In a Name?”

  1. growing up i had always hated my name, because i always wished i was a boy. being a girl in a rather traditional asian family is no joke. no rights, no voice. you’re always having to look for an “opportunity” to speak, having already carefully crafted your approach and sticking point – a lot like guerilla warfare. but i have always hung on to the stories about how i received my name, reveling in the manner in which my mother, her mother, and my step-grandfather all participated in the process. and in spite of my feelings about my status as a young asian woman in a mostly traditional (view-wise) – if modern – home, i embraced the manner in which i was named, equating this level of participation (wrongly or not) to the fact that i must surely, surely have been loved well – regardless of my sex and my impact on the world because of it.

    1. It’s so interesting, names are so much more indicative of our parents’ view of the world than ours, and yet we carry the name our whole lives (most of the time). Asian girls’ names elicit visions of flowers, or feelings of soft and lovely; whereas the boys’ names have more to do with strength, honor. So many women writers will choose men’s names for their pen names specifically because they understand how the world receives a man (even just by name) as compared to a woman. Even if I didn’t look very Asian, my mother always made sure I communicated with caution, especially at family gatherings, and we’d always have a review session of the night if something wasn’t said in an appropriate way. Do you think this “guerilla warfare” style of communication (love that, by the way!) makes Asian women better (perhaps more versatile, strategic or observant) communicators? Did your name grow on you in the end?

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