New Internationalist

In the eye of the beholder

Issue 311

Louisa Waugh finds that people’s names are not always what they seem…

At the end of a romantic evening, Bilguun tenderly called me his ‘ugly Louisa’. I was a bit taken aback as he was my lover and had his arms around me at the time. But when I complained to a couple of Mongolian friends at work the next morning, they simultaneously burst out laughing.

‘Oh! He only said that because he loves you!’

The Mongolian word for ugly (muhai) also, in the right context, means ‘darling’.

Since then, I have moved west to the Mongolian mountains – and my Mongolian has improved considerably. So when I found out that one of my neighbours here in Tsengel is called Mene (many) and his wife’s name is Cow, I couldn’t resist giving my friends a Mongolian translation. Here, if you have many cows (or yaks or camels), you are rich, which Mene incidentally is.

But it is the literal meaning of Mongolian names and the reason they are given in the first place which is really tantalizing. My teaching counterpart is Gansukh (Steel Axe). Her husband is Sansar-Huu, which translates as ‘Son of the Cosmos’. One of Gansukh’s students is Zerleg, which means ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’. And I have a student called Chudruck, or Fist. Then there is poor Neer-Gui, whose name is ‘No-name’. Neer-Gui sits next to Butta-kuz, or Camel-eyes. Sazug meanwhile sits at the back of the class which may be the best place for him, as his name means ‘smelly’.

I quizzed Steel Axe one day about these bewildering names.

‘Why would anyone call their child “Camel-eyes”?’

‘Have you ever looked at a camel’s eyes?’ she replied. ‘They’re beautiful’.

It’s true – Tsengel is full of long-lashed, coy-eyed camels. So Butta-kuz is really quite a compliment. As for Smelly, that took a bit more unravelling. ‘It’s affectionate,’ said Steel Axe. ‘No-one thinks it is offensive. As a name, in Mongolia, it actually implies that he smells quite nice.’ (I thought of Bilguun, and my being ugly and beloved.)

This is good news for another student, ten-year-old Zolbin (Stray) who Steel Axe assured me is a very loved child.

Zerleg was given his savage name to bring him strength. It’s a way of asking the gods to protect him, as is the name Fist. But Steel Axe became very sombre when we got around to discussing Neer-Gui.

‘She had four or five brothers who all died young. Her family begged the lama (Buddhist monk) for a name that wouldn’t anger or insult our Buddhist deities. He advised them to call her No-name. It’s a humble name and she’s a healthy child!’

Steel Axe has four brothers and sisters who all have names with a similar meaning to hers, symbolizing strength and might. Her own son is called Yalvita (Victory) while her daughter is named after a medicinal plant. Many girls have the word Tsetseg (Flower) in their names, while the male-only name Buga (Bull) speaks for itself.

Parents hoping for a son often give their new daughter a male name – and vice versa. It’s another way of petitioning the gods, in this case for the gender of their next child.

Until very recently large families were the norm in Mongolia, especially in rural areas where children are the only security parents have in their old age. Mothers used to be awarded medals for having five children or more, so naming all your kids could turn into quite a challenge.

Mongolian names range from the poetic – Altan Duul (Golden Flame) is my favourite – to the ferocious. Malmas is a placid, happily married man in his forties, who works in Tsengel as an accountant. He’s named after the legendary Almas – a towering, ferocious, coarse-haired beast, who apparently still lives in the remote Altai mountains and carries off the occasional nubile young man or woman to satisfy his rapacious appetites.

No-one has quite been able to explain that one to me.

Louisa Waugh lives and works in Mongolia and is writing a book about Mongolian life.

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