What's in a name?

Columban lay missionary Michael Javier (third from left) and the Sabaw family. - Photo: Michael JavierColumban lay missionary Michael Javier (third from left) and the Sabaw family. - Photo: Michael Javier

When we make new acquaintances, our name is normally the first thing to share after exchanging warm greetings. Some might even go as far as to tell us the meaning of their names. That’s when our curiosity about how children are named in a particular culture is aroused.

For some, the name given to a child is planned by their parents or someone close to them even before the baby is born, usually a name that indicates the sex of the baby. Some will take the name of a celebrity or sports star, while others will pick a biblical or saint’s name.

In some cultures, the name given to a baby upon birth and registered on the birth certificate will also become their baptismal name.

In the Kachin State of Myanmar, they have their own way of giving names to their children. They do not name them after famous people. The ordinal birth of the child takes precedence, i.e. first child, second child, etc. Besides that, a second name that somehow means “good” or “lucky” is added in the belief and hope that it will help the child become a better person someday or attract good fortune.

A ritual called “Ja Htawng Htu” (meaning pounding of ginger) is traditional for naming a newborn. Usually, wild (not ordinary) ginger, salt, and dried fish or meat are put into a small mortar and pounded together. While pounding, the catechist announces the child’s name, as given by the parents and then offers prayers and good wishes for the child and the family. They usually invite some friends to witness the ritual. For Catholics, the child will be given a baptismal or Christian name upon baptism.

When I arrived here in the Kachin State, they asked me if I already had a Kachin name. I wondered if I needed to have one. However, I learned that the Kachins like to adopt a foreigner as a member of their own family by giving him or her a Kachin name. They usually do the “Ja Htawng Htu” as a way of making a stranger feel at home with the foster family. With an open heart, we did the ritual, and I was welcomed as a new member of the Sabaw household. It was an honour to be named “Sabaw Tang San”, Sabaw being the family name, Tang meaning fifth son, and San meaning pure or clean. The Kachins have such a rich cultural heritage.

Columban lay missionary Michael Javier lives and works in Myanmar.

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