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What's In A Name?

What's In A Name?

March 09, 2012

My name may be confusing, but I was quite baffled by names in Kerala - for a while at least.

I have quite an unusual name, but after a few awkward years, I've grown quite attached to it. Let me explain, and confuse you for a moment.

My first name, Barnaby, is more commonly used a surname, notably for the main character of British detective drama Midsomer Murders. My surname is a combination of my parents' surnames and is double-barrelled but unhyphenated: Haszard Morris, not Haszard, Morris or Haszard-Morris. Haszard is not my middle name – nor is Hazard, much as I'd like to be able to say 'danger is almost my middle name'. (I do have a middle name as well, but I'll keep that to myself if it's all the same to you.)

It has caused confusion everywhere I've gone, particularly during my three years in Kerala... well, that's not quite true. It wasn't that the Malayalis I met were confused upon hearing 'Barnaby' – a Malayali will not readily admit to confusion – but that it was misheard and pronounced almost as a rule. 'Barnaby' became 'Panami', 'Pallavi' (that's a girls' name!), 'Barbie' (that's a DOLL'S name for goodness' sake) and more. Many resorted to simply referring to me as 'saip'.

Still, my new friends in Kerala weren't nearly as surprised by name as I was by theirs. Pretty much everyone seemed to be known solely by their first name: my neighbour Venugopal, my auto driver Shibu, my train buddy Chandu. If you wanted to show respect, you could put Mr or Ms in front, as with schoolteachers. When I taught in a high school for a couple of months, I was 'Mr Barns' (sorry, Barns is a nickname of mine, or 'pet name' as they are known in India). And for the truly senior, you simply append a Sir or Ma'am; for example, the operations manager at my workplace was Mr Shibu Sir.

If there's one place I would expect to see full names given, it's the crime page in the newspaper. Crime reporters in New Zealand almost always give convicts' full names, including middle names, in court coverage. Not so in Kerala. Even newspaper journalists seem satisfied with only turning up one name for the stories on its crime pages:

The kingpin was identified as Manoj (36) of Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram. The other members are Sijo (26) and Sanoj (38) of Edavanoor, Kunnathunaddu, Robin Xavier (24) of Cheranellor, Bijoy (37) and Binu (34) of Kunnathunadu and Muraleedharan Nair (62) of Perumbavoor.

-The Times of India, February 14 2012

Manoj (36). Of the hundreds of Manojs in Attingal, a town of about 40,000 people, I'll bet more than one is aged 36. Then we have Sijo, Sanoj, Bijoy and Binu. Presumably everyone in their respective towns knows the bad Binus from the good ones.

What about Robin Xavier and Muraleedharan Nair, though? How come they get a second name? Well, as far as I can tell, a family name appears to be a preserve of the Christian community and higher Hindu castes. Robin Xavier is a Christian name, while the Nair clan, despite not starting out at the top of the caste system according to Wikipedia, occupy a relatively high status in a more secularised modern-day Kerala. Some simply shorten this to an initial, which would see Muraleedharan Nair shortened to N. Muraleedharan; others are given both a caste name and their father's first name, so if our sand-mining racket member's dad was named Rakesh, he would be N. R. Muraleedharan.

This latter trend, the father's first name as a surname, seems by far to be the most common naming trend of all. For example, if Attingal dacoit Manoj's father was named Aneesh, Manoj's full name would therefore be Manoj Aneesh. This also appears to be the norm among the Malayalis I've met here in New Zealand. The only other place I could find this patronymic practice used regularly is, curiously, Iceland, which is probably about as far removed from Kerala as possible in any characteristic you'd care to name.

Even more interesting (to me at least, if you'll bear with me), is that the majority of Malayali women take their husband's name upon marriage. This leads to some very interesting discussions of female empowerment in a traditionally male-dominated society, given that most women in Kerala are lumped with their father's first name through the first ~20 years of their life and, from marriage onwards, with their new husband's first name. To me, the fact that it is the father's/husband's first name implies a very direct kind of possession by a man of a woman, but I've read in Facebook threads that this trend may be changing.

There are other interesting naming trends in other parts of India, of course, such as the Sikh tradition of boys being given the surname Singh and girls Kaur as a way of denoting their religious faith. Ultimately, your name can say a lot about you: where you're from, what level of society your family has traditionally occupied, even who you're married to. I suppose names are another aspect of social diversity which, if standardised and merged across cultures, would make everything a bit more boring - so I say to you, Manoj (36), bravo to you and Kerala for offering a little bit more colour to the human condition.


  • Rek
    10.03.12 10:58 AM
    Enjoyed the article, no different from other oddities like the double first names from the deep south in the U.S or the penchant for Arabs to have long, impressive sounding names.
    At the very least, though I would love to add my mom's name to mine, a father's or husband's (in my opinion) helps keep the caste element of the name away though the name itself can at times be caste or region specific...that's the best thing about the south Indian habit of names.
    Besides if we take away this small credit of creating us or opting to have us as the better half, the men in our lives will be sad.
    09.03.12 09:06 PM
    @ Barns

    Good writeup, but I don't think you have even scratched the surface yet, When it comes to indian names and how they are given. Good try.
  • Spinoza B
    Spinoza B
    09.03.12 05:49 PM
    "Muraleedharan Nair shortened to N. Muraleedharan"

    That would be highly unlikely. Initials are shortened family names or shortened patronymics, or both. Caste titles come after given names, and are not shortened.

    Muralidharan Nair would stay Muralidharan Nair.

    Muralidharan son of Narayanan would become N. Muralidharan.

    Naduveetil (family name) Muralidharan could also become N. Muralidharan.

    Naduveetil Narayanan Muralidharan would become N. N. Muralidharan.

    In the latter two cases, if Muralidharan were a Nair and fond of his caste, he could call himself N. Muralidharan Nair, or N. N. Muralidharan Nair.
  • Sampada
    09.03.12 03:03 PM
    Interesting post, as always! Not just Malayali women, But majority of Indian women take their husband's surname after marriage. In Maharashtrain families, even the girl's first name used to be changed ( is still changed in some families) .The thought being that as she is going in a new family,she should enter the new family with a new name and new personality, leaving her identity behind. chauvinist big time, I know.
    Also, many marathi surnames end with 'kar'. That 'kar' denotes the village/place the person hails from. often, nobody knows where the village is situated, as surnames are passed over several generations.
  • thunderror
    09.03.12 01:39 PM
    Naming convention in Kerala has undergone a sea change post 1980s, Most of them have to taken to have their dad's names as their surname, and don't use their caste names or house names. From someone who still sticks on to his house name, even though it being a hard to spell, one.
  • Jayanth Tadinada
    Jayanth Tadinada
    09.03.12 12:04 PM
    The naming conventions vary vastly across the states. In Tamil Nadu, most people take their father's name as a second name. In neighboring Andhra, its a big story.

    The surname is usually derived from the name of the village but it doesn't stop there. They add the family's favorite God, grandfather/grandmother's first name and a lot of other things!
  • Shaila
    09.03.12 11:03 AM
    Well...if you really want an insight into the Mystery of Mallu must read Sidin Vadukut's famous blogposts on them!!! :D

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