Magazine article Verbatim

Name Choices among the Xhosa of South Africa

Magazine article Verbatim

Name Choices among the Xhosa of South Africa

Article excerpt

Name giving among the Xhosa of South Africa takes on other proportions than in a Euro-Western context. A name is not only a label, identifying and referring to a unique individual, but it also conforms to cultural dictates. This view is strengthened by the fact that Xhosa first names are generally semantically transparent: the lexicon of the Xhosa language serves as the inspiration for the choice of name. Hence, all that is often necessary to interpret the meaning of a name correctly is knowledge of the linguistic system or language of the name carrier. For this reason the name stock in Xhosa society is reasonably finite because not all lexicon entries can serve as the basis for names.

The following categories regarding the motivations in choosing a name are the most popular ones. These names then also indicate a very strong link between name and culture.


The names express some sort of expectation or aspiration from the name givers for the child. It is often direct and clear, at other times subtle and shrouded. A common manifestation is a name that reflects a good or positive human quality or attribute. The parents obviously wish that their children will one day exhibit this particular character trait. A child, in growing up, may respect his parents' wishes and expectations or, by some stroke of luck, may naturally exhibit that characteristic. When this happens, the Xhosa are fond of saying: Ulilandele igama lakhe ("He follows his name"). This ties in with the term aptonym. According to Scheetz (1988), an aptonym is "presumably, an apt or suitable name," from English apt; from Latin aptus, aptere 'to fasten, to join, to fit.' The South African amateur astronaut Mark Shuttleworth was cited as having an apt name.

Some examples:


It is easy to see the positive personality traits embedded in these names. There are many examples. One wonders how many of these name carriers turned out to be aptonym carriers as well. Gratitude to God/Ancestors

Most Xhosa speakers do believe in some supernatural force that dictates, guides, punishes, facilitates, or, in short, exerts influence upon people in their daily lives. This could either be the Christian God, uThixo, or uQamata, a faraway deity that is not approached directly. In the traditional religious context, departed ancestors play an important role as mediators. It is extremely important in such traditional contexts to seek the blessing and benevolence of the ancestors, hence the careful compliance with ritual. The birth of a child may therefore also result in a name acknowledging and thanking the ancestors for their benign influence, indicating that the ancestors or the supernatural forces were favorably disposed toward the parents in question.

Many names suggest the idea of gratitude in one way or another, and this may then be to either the Christian God or to the ancestors, and it is not inconceivable that both are implied.

The idea of joy, happiness, as well as that of a gift or blessing is also common in names, supposedly because of the arrival of the newborn. Examples:


This category of names will remain popular in spite of the reduplication of many names. …

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