OpinionsViewpointWhat’s in a name?

What’s in a name?


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CEBU CITY — A British journalist and a business executive from England have written, a decade apart, witty features on unique Filipino names that we take for granted but which stun foreigners.

“On my first day in Manila, I…was served by a smiling (coffee shop) girl who wore a name badge titled BumBum,” Kate McGeown of British Broadcasting Corp. recalls. “I did a double-take. But if it is a joke, practically the whole country seems to be in.”

Matthew Sutherland said as much in an Observer feature in 2001. “The secretary I inherited on arrival had an unusual name: Leck-Leck. “Filipinos,” he discovered, “were fond of repeating names”. They include Lenlen or Ning-Ning.

“Names are further refined by using the “squared” symbol as in Len2 or Mai2,” Sutherland wrote. “How boring to come from the UK full of people named John Smith. How wonderful to come to a country where imagination and verve rule.”

The head of the Catholic Church here was named Jaime Cardinal Sin. “Welcome to the house of Sin!,” he’d greet guests. “Where else in the world could that happen but in the Philippines?”

Names are also used in doorbell-like combinations like Dindong. When asked why he was called Bing, a friend replied: because his brother was called Bong. “Faultless logic,” Sutherland adds.

“The President himself is a good example,” BBC’s McGeown weighed in. “His full Christian name is Benigno Simeon Cojuangco. [These] names are Spanish, Hebrew, and Chinese. His nickname Noynoy is the only part that is truly Filipino.”

A well-used adage is that the Philippines spent 400 years in a convent, then 50 years in Hollywood, referring to Spanish then American colonial rule.

“The former President Joseph Estrada is more commonly known as ‘Erap’,” she notes. “(That’s) a name he acquired in his 20s. When spelt backwards, Erap becomes Pare, which means mate or buddy in Tagalog.

“No one questions the integrity of Joker Arroyo, one of the country’s most respected senators,” McGeown wrote. “That is his real first name. Apparently, he got it because of his father’s fondness for playing cards. Joker’s brother is called Jack.

“Former Cong. Ace Barbers, like Joker Arroyo, obviously had a card-player in the family. He bears the Christian name of Robert. So do his father and all his brothers. He has not found it a problem as he named his four sons Robert, too. Nicknames must be essential in their house.”

Sutherland points to another category: the “randomly-inserted letter “H” in names. “It results in creations like: Lhenn, Ghemma, Jhimmy, or Jhun (Jhun2?) A Rhose by Any Other Name is a play on Juliet’s balcony plant about how Romeo was called.

“What this device is supposed to achieve, I haven’t yet figured out,” Sutherland confesses. “But I think it is designed to give a class of touch to an otherwise only averagely-weird name.”

“There’s another thing I’d never seen before coming to Manila: taxis with the driver’s kids’ names painted on the trunk”. Luzviminda, of course, splices Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao. And Jejomar, of course, melds Jesus, Joseph, and Mary “They look great painted on the trunk of the cab you hail.”

Some parents draw up groups like Jon, Joy, Jo-Anne, and Joyce. But some names defy explanation. “Why would you call your children after days of the week or your favorite desserts, like Apple Pie or Peachy?” No one has yet picked Macapuno. But give us time….

“To many Filipinos, the better question is: ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ The odd names are not a translation issue, McGeown notes. “Most Filipinos speak English well, or well enough to know that BumBum, for example, is not exactly on top of the Anglophile world’s list of popular baby names.”

She lobbed the question at a dinner party crammed with lawyers, academics, and business people. “Many of them were surprised. They never thought of these names as having any kind of negative connotation”. Soon, a heated debate began. “They agreed that to outsiders at least, it all might sound a bit strange.”

Was it the propensity of Filipinos to have large, tight-knit families?, some asked. A man called Babe or Honey Boy suited him when he was two years old. “Now, he is a slightly overweight businessman in his 50s. Why change it?”

The Philippines is a melting pot of different cultures. Perhaps, that is what led to these strange names?

“The Spanish introduced the concept of surnames. They issued a decree in 1849 that everyone had to have a surname. So even today, most surnames are Spanish. But the main thing Spain gave to the Philippines was Catholicism, and with it, tens of thousands of newly-christened Marias and Joses.

“With the Americans came names like Butch, Buffy and Junior – and the propensity to shorten everything if at all possible.

Both McGeown and Sutherland were struck how the large Filipino-Chinese community joins this national name game. “Their surnames are often a form of Anglicised Chinese. But the Philippine penchant for fun shines through”.

Tsinoys apply imagination and humor in the naming process. Sutherland’s favorites include: Bach Johann Sebastian, Edgar Allan Pe, Jonathan Livingston Magic, Chiongson Chica, and Van Go.”

Sutherland says in his Philippine tour, names “provided a continuing source of amazement and amusement”. For her part, McGeown observes: “Filipinos are self-assured enough to use these names no matter how odd they sound, or how senior the person’s public role.”

Few raised an eyebrow when boxer Manny Pacquiao named his two girls “Queen Elizabeth” and “Princess”.

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