The study of proper names is known as onomastics. The term is of Greek etymology; onomastikos, meaning of or belonging to naming. So this week we venture into the interesting subject of names yet again. We look at three names which generally appear as if they are synonymous. They are all common personal names. These are Neo, Kabo and Mpho. Statistically, Mpho is the most frequent of the three names, followed by Neo; while Kabo comes last. While all the three names appear as if they are unisex, Neo is largely a girl’s name, while Kabo is predominantly a boy’s name. Mpho is in many ways a true unisex name as it is given to both boys and girls equally. What we wish to investigate is whether these names are truly synonymous or whether there are discernible semantic differences between them.
The three names are derived from the verbal forms: naya, aba and fa. The question of whether the personal names are synonymous must therefore be dealt with by answering the question of whether the three verbs are synonymous. Let’s deal with the semantics of the verbs one at a time first. The name Neo is derived from the verb naya or neela which means “to put something in someone’s hand, or to pass something to someone”. This makes the semantics of the verb naya close to the English verb give. The name Kabo on the other hand is derived from the verb aba, which means to give something such as food, clothes, or money to a group of people or to one amongst many”. That is why in Setswana we can say go abela batlhoki dikobo. It could also mean “to share an available supply of something such as money among people or organizations” or “to spread something over an area”. This makes the verb aba closer in semantics to the English verb distribute. The final name to look at is Mpho which is derived from the verb fa. The verb fa means to “to give someone something that you think they need or deserve”. There is an intrinsic assumption in the verb fa that when something is given it is because it is needed or that it will be greatly appreciated. This is different from naya which simply means to give even if the receiver doesn’t want to receive that which they are being given. This makes the verb fa closer to the English verb offer.
The next thing to consider is: what are some of the differences between these three verbs? How is naya and aba different? The verb aba suggests that I am giving out something from a large collection of entities or from that which I own. So someone fa a aba tshimo there is a intrinsic suggestion that the tshimo that they are giving out either belongs to them or it lies directly under their authority for them to give. Even more interestingly, it is possible for them go aba dimpho. This shows that the gifts are being distributed and not being re-given! The verb naya or neela is therefore basic semantically while both aba and fa have added semantics over and above the basic meaning of naya.
What then shall we say about the difference between aba and fa? There is clear suggestion in the semantics of aba that its arguments nouns that follow it are entities of value. For instance, the verb aba in an 18 million Setswana corpus is followed by positive words such as ditilo, kokelwana, dimpho, dikobo, dibuka, dibolo, boswa, madi, ditsha, madi, lefatshe, dijo, dikgele, dipilisi and others.
Now that we have briefly considered the three verbs, we may now proceed to deal with the names which are derived from the verbs. The name Neo therefore doesn’t mean a gift, instead it refers to an entity that has been given. It doesn’t have any emotional attachment of whether that which has been given is loved, preferred or needed. What the name does mean is that it recognizes that the child has been “put into the hands of the parents’ hands” by some other entity. The child comes from somewhere to the parents. It has been “passed to the parents”. For those who believe in God or the gods they may attribute the presence of the child to a divine being; they may therefore believe that the child has been passed to them by a divine being; God or the gods. Kabo on the other hand means one who has been distributed to us. Subtle in the meaning is an image of a divine being who distributes children to mortals. As mentioned before, the arguments of the verb aba are positive nouns. Motho ga a tsamaye a aba maaka kgotsa malwetsi. This therefore suggests that the name Kabo recognizes the value of the child and that whoever sent the child, also does give children to others. The name Kabo and the word seabe (a part of a whole or a contribution) are derived from the same root.
The name Mpho on the other hand means a gift that is needed or deserved. The name doesn’t mean something or someone that is given, instead the name recognizes that the parents actually did need the child – the child is needed.
All the three names deal with being given something, but Kabo and Mpho have additional meaning of value and worth. If the names were arranged on the basis of beauty, Mpho will take the first position, followed by Kabo, and Neo will be the least attractive.
In giving names, it is rewarding to pause and consider what the name means. Some meanings are deeper than others. Sometimes a brief consideration of a name’s etymology reveals much depth in the name. While we may comment about a name’s basic meaning; one must hasten to point out that many names are given for different reasons. Beyond the basic meaning of names is the reasoning, that is, why names were given. The reasoning weaves a story of human life, which the basic meaning of a name does not deal with.