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Eritrean Nicknames And Diminutives

What could be the reason for the mushrooming of nicknames in our society? Is it a long-standing tradition? The other day someone told me that nicknames are as old as the history of our country with nobles who went around with embarrassing monikers such as Abak (suffering from scabies) and Betki (good-for-nothing), etc..

Anyway one should be aware that nicknames don’t simply pop up out of the blue. There must be good reasons for their appearances.

 Most people agree that nicknames emerge mainly from the following: from the way people pronounced their names or some products while they were toddlers eg. Koyemeye (from caramele), Lellu (from Lemlem or even M’l’etu), Akaki (from Abdelkader) etc.

From the way people looked like or probably behaved: Derho (chicken), D’mu (cat), Tiel (goat), Monkey (no translation). Their physical blemishes or handicap: such as Ewur (blind or half-blind), Shengeb (lefty), Hankish (one who limps), etc. Or a deliberate corruption of the original name: Abdat (for Abdu), etc.

They may even reflect people’s behavior like when someone obsessively repeats a particular word in his irritating political argument until finally it is stuck as his nickname: Mao, Spinoza, Marx, Che Guevera, Lenin, etc. They could also be attributed to their attitude or the film hero they imitate: Toto, Django. Or even the place they hailed from: Weddi Dekemhare, Weddi Bats’e, Weddi Maccello, Weddi Keren, Weddi Adua.

And why not, their physical prowess or health: Debolezza or Perniente (Italian for weakness and in vain respectively), Feres (horse), Nebri (leopard), Waro (lioness), etc.   

But sometimes the nickname is a bit offensive and there’s nothing you can do about it. Let a bad name stick and it is very hard to dislodge. It follows you to the grave and beyond. Nicknames are not respecters of persons.

This can be seen in obituaries. Someone dies and the public is going to be notified through posters duly attached to walls and billboards. Let’s suppose the name of the deceased person is Gerima. So normally the obituary should read: “Mr. Gerima has passed away and the funeral services will be held in such and such place…”

Here there is a hitch. There are many Gerimas that are born and die every year. Who is this particular Gerima? Of course his picture will be there alongside his name, but most mug shots are not of recent origin. As people don’t exactly know when the Good Lord would call them to his abode, the majority do not have a proper photograph at the crucial moment.

Fortunately Gerima has a nickname. And if the idea is to get as many mourners as possible or if you don’t want some of his close friends to miss his funeral, then you have only one choice, to affix the nickname next to his name. Alas, his nickname happens to be very embarrassing for the family, especially that now he is dead. And you have to show some respect for the departed.  

Unfortunately, Gerima is more known by his nickname Arios (which means wicked, from Arius, founder of Arianism, a Christian heresy that denied the full divinity of Jesus Christ) than by his baptismal name. What are you going to do? The family swallows its pride, crosses itself and affixes that discomforting nickname, because if it doesn’t do that, there will be less people in the funeral. It is really a dilemma. Going to heaven with such a name!! Scary, isn’t it!!

That’s which in some obituaries or ‘death notices’ which grace the walls and notice boards of most Eritrean towns, you read Mr. Malu’s obituary as “Mr. Malu (Mafia) has passed away, and the funeral services will take place……” Or “Mr. Gerima (Weddi Haram, Son of a Gun) has passed away and the funeral….” Or again Mr. Elfu (Wedini, Scoundrel) has passed away……”

Imagine your nickname is Hatchet and one day that nickname is affixed to your real name in the obituary…. How do you feel? Well, it can be said in this case that the people who read the notice will go to your funeral “to bury the hatchet’. Got it? That will be a very ideal funeral, in an English setting, of course.

Most Christian Eritreans are going to heaven with three names: 1. The Priest or Church name (which is given to you during baptism and is a name by which you will be called to appear before the Celestial Tribunal 2. The common name by which people know you and praise or defame you, and 3. The ubiquitous nickname, a thorn in the flesh but most probably overlooked by the Celestial Judge.

The problem never seems to end. Once when I joined a school in some remote place south of the border as a teacher, I was very eager to meet a longtime friend by the name of Maru. When I reached the place, I went to the school where I was assigned and my first question to the people I met in the staff room was: Where’s Maru?

The teachers looked perplexed. I told them that I was not mistaken since his family had instructed me to deliver a letter addressed to him and that I was sure he was in the school.

“We are sorry but we don’t have a teacher by that name,” they replied categorically.

“How come?” I asked disappointed. “I came all the way to meet this guy and you tell me that he is not here?”

Then someone remembered:

“Could it be Weddi Bats’e?”

“Yes!” I shouted. I never expected Maru would divulge his nickname to people he hardly knew. Anyway, sooner or later, he would have come to the staff room and I would have recognized him by his looks, but for a minute there I was very much scared, for I had no one to talk to in the teachers’ lounge, the rest of the gang not being “Dekki Addey” (my compatriots). 

And there was this friend of mine who went by the nickname of Chuck Berry (he adored the famous American singer by that name) and everybody called him Chuck. His real name was however Elfu Tewelde.

One day his father went to the school where his son attended summer courses and asked the janitor to send and fetch for him.

“I need to see my son” implored Mr. Tewelde.

“What’s his name?” asked the janitor ready to oblige the elderly father.

“Elfu Tewelde” replied the father.

The janitor approached some of the students who were playing in the compound and got only negatives replies. Disappointed he told the elderly man that nobody knew anyone by that name.

Mr. Tewelde thought for a while and then shook his head:

“Sorry, but they call my son Chuck Berry,” he corrected.

“Why didn’t you tell me his real name before,” shouted the janitor and was about to leave for another try when all of sudden he turned back and said: “Nice meeting you….  Mr. Berry.”

“No I am Mr. Tewelde,” corrected the father. “Your Chuck Berry is in fact Elfu Tewelde.”

It is interesting to note at this juncture that there were and still are nicknames that refer to countries and nationalities as well: Kidane Germen (German), Kessete Tilian (Italian), Abraha Americano, Gerima Engleez (English), Maru Nigeria, Gidey Manchuria, Ghirmay China, Ogbay Czechoslovakia, etc.

And we have nicknames that are totally Italian in origin:  Mangia Tutto (eater of everything), Papaya, Olio (oil), Burro (butter), Kurto (corto = short), quattro occhio (four-eyed or bespectacled), Cippolla (onion), Banka, Gatto Nero (an Italian half-cast who did not make it to become fair-skinned), Lingo (lungo = tall), Mafia, Balila, Marco (someone with bad eyesight), Ova (uova for eggs), Gomista (tire repair), etc.

At present diminutives seem to be making headway mostly with girls who prefer names of endearment to their real names. Some even use it as their official names such as Yorda and Ruta (for Yordanos and Ruth).

The Akhberets are Akki to friends and foes. Eden becomes Eddu, Rahle becomes Rahela, Alganesh becomes Algoo, Nigisty becomes Titi, etc. Among male youngsters, Fessehaye becomes Fish, Binian becomes Bini, Zaccarias changes into Zecchu, Amanuel into Emma, Tesfay into Tesfit, Yohannes into John, etc. 

But in downtown Asmara and its narrow streets and alleys walked men who became legends in their own time, such as Uket (which means wasp), Jelos (after Joe Louis, the American heavy weight boxer of the 50s), Tsegai Cento, Weddi Seleba, etc. Anyone who made the fatal mistake of picking a fight with the above had to count his bones and his teeth before the deadly encounter, and verify the correct number later. He may lose some in the primordial battle of the apes, and he doesn’t carry spare parts with him.

These were known for their extraordinary strength and deadly head-butting. One of their head-butt and you dropped flat on the ground unconscious, with your eyes rolling wildly until some kindly people arrived and took you home or to the nearest hospital on a stretcher. These urban equivalents of ferocious beasts kept their nicknames as a social prestige and wanted to be addressed by the same.

But there were also those who lived on the other end of life’s spectrum and preferred to stay in peace and calm, earning their bread honestly and consorting with all types of men with joy and fellowship. Bla’e Illuwo (born to eat), Weddi Egziher or Weddi Rebbi (son of God), Abo Khulu (father of the poor) Bela’e natu (very honest), etc. 

Why so many nicknames in our country? Several reasons can be given by way of explanation. One reason is that our names tend to overlap: there are many Tesfays or Alems or Genets or Mustafas or Alis, etc. in our list of people’s names. The only way to minimize confusion is to single out some people and add an epithet to their real names to distinguish them from others, or simply use the father’s name with the prefix Weddi or Gual. Hence we have Berhe Dinish (Solomon the Potato), Tsehaye Ova (Tsehaye the egg-head), Yemane Barya (Yemane the black), Daniel Seitan (Daniel the Devil), etc. and Weddi Seleba (Son of Seleba), Gual Znar (daughter of Znar).

Still another plausible reason is that some of our names are too long to pronounce such as GhebreEgziabiher, Andeberhan, AbdelRahman, Teweldemedhin, WeldeEndrias, etc. which to some uninitiated people sound more like scientific names of plants and animals or even Sumerian deities. Hence the tendency to use diminutives or simply nicknames.

Accordingly, GhebreEgziabiher becomes Gerie, or Garry; Andeberhan becomes Ande, or if his father has a shorter name like Berhe, he will be called simply Weddi Berhe.

One day a certain Eritrean went to Italy as an economic refugee. After visiting the Ufficio Collocamento (Employment Agency) they made him undergo all kinds of tests short of checking his teeth as if he were a horse, and finally got him a job with a certain Signora who treated him like a Nubian slave in the time of the Roman Empire.

“Come ti chiami? (What’s your name)” she asked him.

“GhebreEgziabiher,” he chirped with pride. The Signora found it a bit too long and rather complicated. Deep inside she must have wished his name were Gigi or Carlucci.

“Va bene, va bene….ma posso chiamarti Gerie semplicemente? (Okay…..but may I call you Gerie for short)” she ventured.

“Never!” exploded GhebreEgziabiher. “I can endure colonial humiliation and mistreatment, but to shorten my dearest name and most precious possession to Gerie, that’s too much!” 

But unknown to GhebreEgziabiher and his likes, when the American GIs were in Asmara in the 1950s and 60s, diminutives and names of endearment abounded. Prostitutes or bartenders in Tira Volo and Campo Polo had their names changed overnight from Letegebriel to Letty; from Buzunesh to Bizi; from Gergsu to Gergy; from Senbetu to Senby, etc. and with these names they simply married the GIs and went to America.

Another revealing reason could be that in Eritrea, there was more social equality than there could ever have been south of the border at the time, causing people to use diminutives and nicknames with complete license. Our people had already got rid of almost all sorts of feudal vestiges thanks to Italians.

And then during the 30-year armed struggle the trend was for complete social and economic equality which produced fighters who called each other “Comrade” and used nicknames to address one another irrespective of age, rank or seniority. Some of the reasons here could naturally be attributed to security. Never in the history of our country were so many nicknames used by so many people for formal and informal addresses.

When the fighters liberated Asmara and began to intermingle with the town’s people, I for one was much amazed by the variety of nicknames used by them to address one another. Not even the leadership was safe. Everybody seemed to have had a second baptism in the field.

The girls I knew as Astier or M’hret arrived with new names and I was amused by such nicknames as Gual Mamma or Tanki or Tantu (mosquito), etc.    

In conclusion it can be said that Eritrea was, until a decade or so ago, one of the few countries in the world boasting the largest number of nicknames as per population, a hallmark for a happy-go-lucky and close-knit society.

eripost@awate.com

About Amanuel Sahle

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