Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

An Alternative to Patronymics

August 19th, 2010 · 4 Comments

A long, drunken subway ride last night gave me the chance to finish The Black Nile, Dan Morrison’s account of a harrowing trip he took from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean Sea. There’s enough grist in this excellent travelogue to craft a dozen killer Microkhan posts, but for now I’ll just limit myself to a quick discussion of the Nuer, one of the major ethnic groups in southern Sudan.

Morrison, an occasional Microkhan correspondent now based in Dhaka, delves into the Nuer practice of ritual scarification, whereby adolescent boys are cut quite deeply on the forehead. As the caption for this gorgeous 1935 photo explains, those who pass through the ordeal are granted great privileges afterwards:

The operation (gar) is a severe one which causes much blood loss, across the forehead from ear to ear. Boys were normally initiated between the ages of 14-16, and a group initiated during a number of successive years belong to an age-set. After initation a youth is prohibited from milking, able to marry, gains a spear and an ox from which he takes his ox-name, and was able to go on cattle raids against the Dinka.

If you’re anything like me, your first thought upon reading that caption was “Ox-name?” Yes indeed:

Men are frequently addressed by names that refer to the form and colour of their favourite oxen, and women take names from oxen and from the cows they milk. Even small boys call one another by ox-names when playing together in the pastures, a child usually taking his name from the bull-calf of the cow he and his mother milk. Often a man receives an ox-name or cow-name at birth. Sometimes the name of a man which is handed down to posterity is his ox-name and not his birth-name. Hence a Nuer genealogy may sound like an inventory of a kraal. The linguistic identification of a man with his favourite ox cannot fail to affect his attitude to the beast.

The use of ox-names obviously reflects the centrality of cattle to Nuer life. Is there an equivalent practice in Western society? The closest thing I could come up with was the sudden popularity of the name Jayden after Britney Spears set the trend.

(Image via the Pitt Rivers Museum Southern Sudan Collections)


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • ADW

    Actually, I think it’s kind of cool, in a weird way, of course. But, seriously, are we as a society obsessed with our pets any different? The oxen aren’t pets, but they are the source of food, and life.

    I’d be more comfortable naming my kid after an ox than naming her Apple or Shiloh or Tripp, Trig, Spear or Sparrow.

  • Gramsci

    I think the closest equivalent would be nicknames earned at a fraternity, perhaps even your alma mater’s Skull and Bones. While those names will rarely be public (though in the South they sometimes just become the person’s name), they are bestowed during a rite of passage and they have a certain currency among the elite class who employ them.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Excellent point. Is that how G. Bush Sr. got the handle “Poppy”?

  • monkeyball

    ADW’s curt dismissal of the Snowbilly Tribe leads to one possible Western ox-name type: Mercede