Jun 7, 2013

Foreign names in Nepal

Once upon a time, my friend Sabina wanted to know what her name meant. After long searches, we found that Shabina, spelled with an h, is of Arab origin and means “eye of the storm”. Ooh, powerful indeed. Spelled without an h, the meaning of Sabina was much harder to find, but ultimately a friend found that it means “flower” in Arabic languages. This incident got me thinking about other foreign names that are popular in Nepal. In fact, there are many such names, and some of them even sound native, and we don’t think of them as foreign. Sabina is one of them. It seems very similar to our indigenous name Sabita but is actually not similar at all. Sabina, as we have seen, is foreign, but Sabita and Savita are derived from Savitra, an ancient name for sun god. Today this name for sun is forgotten. Savitri is also obviously derived from Savitra, though Savitri is more famous for her Pativrata deeds today.

Another Muslim name popular in Nepal is Ayesha. Actually it is more popular in Hindi films than in Nepal per se, but still, quite a few people in Nepal are called Ayesha. Aisha might seem like a modern name, what with Sonam Kapoor frolicking in shorts in the movie Aisha. But actually, it is found in the earliest Islamic scriptures, and is supposed to be of Arab origin. The meaning of this name is “alive”, and the most famous person with this name is (not Ayesha Takia), but the favorite wife of Prophet Mohammed.

Another filmy name connected to foreign religions is Sonia. Local name experts would claim that Sonia is derived from the Sanskrit svarna, which means gold, and which is known as sun in Nepal. Sonu, Sunahari, Sunkumari, Shonal, Sonali (think Sonali Bendre), and quite a few other names are derived from the same golden roots. Sonam, by the way, isn’t on this list. It’s a Tibetan name meaning fortunate. Soniye and soniyo, words often heard in Hindi songs, are Punjabi terms of endearment meaning golden boy or girl. But Sonia also has an alternative western origin that is quite religious. It is derived from Sophia, which means wisdom in Greek. Both Sophia and Soniya are mentioned many times in the Bible and other western religious texts to describe wise persons. I guess both origins of the name are equally valid and that accounts for the wide popularity of Sonia. And so we have people like Sonia Gandhi, an Italian with a seemingly South Asian name.

Sonia Gandhi is the royalty of a country that doesn’t have kings, which brings us to some real queens. Rejina is a name made famous in Nepal by the actress Rejina Upreti. Pronounced the same but spelled with a g, Regina means queen in several European languages. In fact, Regina comes from the root ra, which is an ancient Indo Aryan word for royalty. The words raja, rani, rajya, rajaswa, royal, regal, regent, regalia, and many other words signifying royalty come from this root. The Latin word Rex, which can mean lion or king (remember Oedipus Rex) also comes from the same root. Gina and Rina are both supposed to be derived from Regina, so if your name is Gina or Rina, you are queen too. After all this history, I don’t know what Rejina would mean if it is spelled with a j. If your name is Rejina, you can argue that it still means queen. But it should not be confused with Rajani, which is our own Sanskrit word for night. Rajanigandha takes its name from Rajani, and the word literally means “something that smells in the night.” It is generally used for flowers like Parijat that bloom fragrantly at night. Rajnikant also derives its name from the night, it means “lord of the night”, and typically signifies the moon. Of course, in Rajnikanth’s topsy-turvy world, all those other names are probably derived from his name, and the moon is named after him, but that’s another issue altogether.

And then there is a woman who is actually supposed to have turned the world topsy-turvy. Helen, meaning ray of sun, is a pretty famous women, and her name has many variations. Some of the famous people with the variations are: Ellen DeGeneres, an American TV personality, Helena Christensen, a Victoria's secret model, Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of American President Franklin Roosevelt, Ileana, a South Indian actress, and Lana Lang, one of Superman's girlfriends. My best friend has a very unique spelling of it, as her name is Helina. A Greek friend at my former university was called Eleni, and according to her, this is the original Greek spelling. We better believe her, since the story of Helen is written in ancient Greek anyway. In Nepal a variation spelled Alina is very popular and this variation is probably unique to Nepal. I have never come across it anywhere outside of Nepal, even in literature, though a few name dictionaries will list it.

Many of these names are given to children without knowing the meanings, and it was interesting to find that some seemingly random Nepali names actually meant something in some other language. For some strange reason, I could only think of female names, there don’t seem to be any parallel male names. The only example I could think of was a couple who had named their son Alice, only to find years later that it was a girl’s name.

Or maybe there are foreign male names popular in Nepal, and I just don’t know of them yet. Or maybe parents just want to give fancy unique names to their girl child, which brings me to my own name. Though my name is pretty fancy and unique, I always found it bland. To me its meaning lies somewhere between social service and charity, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sewa means destiny in Togo of Africa. My Togolese friend told me that if I went to Togo, I would fit right in. I am quite inclined to believe him, since I even have the looks and hair to match. Togo, here I come, to find my destiny!


avoiceinside said...

An interesting read. Enjoyed reading it. Made me wonder what my name actually means.

Subodh Rana said...

Great sleuthing! I also have a blog on the imported words we frequently use that appeared in Nepali Times.



BN Patnaik said...

Very interesting! Very interesting that such names happen to be the names of women. As for the name “Sewa” I thought it is very unusual and original. I have done some study of Hindu names. My sample was small, but hopefully not entirely unrepresentative, and this name was not there in that sample. In any case, if the bearer of this name doesn’t feel good about it (in the non-Togo context), others’ views do not matter.

curly locks said...

Dear Dr. Patnaik, I would love, love to read your study of Hindu names. Me and my sister are crazy about classical names, and my sister from a young age has maintained a name dictionary. She names all the kinds born to our relatives.
I do think my name is slightly bland, but then again, as you mentioned, it is a fairly unique one, so there is something to be happy about :)

Anonymous said...

Hi, I just would like to say that the name SABINA comes from the name of a place nearby Rome in Italy and that land takes the name from an ancient tribe "SABINI" who was use to live in center Italy 3000 years ago before the Romans and then became part of the first roman expansion. In fact a few Roman Emperors were from Sabina. This place is just 60/80 km from Rome and is absolutely stunning and peaceful.
Check on Google for more details.

curly locks said...

thank you for the interesting explanation, annonymous :)

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