(Editor's Note: Matthew Sutherland's essay on the
phenomenon called Manila traffic got rave reviews
among readers. Through this column, he hopes to give
us glimpses into our own culture by writing about all
things Pinoy from an expat's point of view.)
"A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches"
WHEN I arrived in the Philippines from the UK six
years ago, one of the first cultural differences to
strike me was names. The subject has provided a
continuing source of amazement and amusement ever
since. The first unusual thing, from an English
perspective, is that everyone here has a nickname. In
the staid and boring United Kingdom, we have nicknames
in kindergarten, but when we move into adulthood we
tend, I am glad to say, to lose them.
The second thing that struck me is that Philippine
names for both girls and boys tend to be what we in
the UK would regard as overbearingly cutesy for anyone
over about five. "Fifty-five-year-olds with names that
sound like five-year-olds", as one colleague put it.
Where I come from, a boy with a nickname like Boy Blue
or Honey Boy would be beaten to death at school by
pre-adolescent bullies, and never make it to
adulthood. So, probably, would girls with names like
Babes, Lovely, Precious, Peachy or Apples. Yuk, ech
ech. Here, however, no one bats an eyelid.
Then I noticed how many people have what I have come
to call "door-bell names". These are nicknames that
sound like - well, door-bells. There are millions of
them. Bing, Bong, Ding, and Dong are some of the more
common. They can be, and frequently are, used in even
more door-bell-like combinations such as Bing-Bong,
Ding-Dong, Ting-Ting, and so on. Even our
newly-appointed chief of police has a doorbell name -
None of these door-bell names exist where I come from,
and hence sound unusually amusing to my untutored
foreign ear. Someone once told me that one of the
Bings, when asked why he was called Bing, replied
"because my brother is called Bong". Faultless logic.
Dong, of course, is a particularly funny one for me,
as where I come from "dong" is a slang word for a
well, perhaps "talong" is the best Tagalog equivalent.
Repeating names was another novelty to me, having
never before encountered people with names like
Len-Len, Let-Let, Mai-Mai, or Ning-Ning. The secretary
I inherited on my arrival had an unusual one:
Leck-Leck. Such names are then frequently further
refined by using the "squared" symbol, as in Len2 or
Mai2. This had me very confused for a while.
Then there is the trend for parents to stick to a
theme when naming their children. This can be as
simple as making them all begin with the same letter,
as in Jun, Jimmy, Janice, and Joy. More imaginative
parents shoot for more sophisticated forms of
assonance or rhyme, as in Biboy, Boboy, Buboy, Baboy
(notice the names get worse the more kids there are
-- best to be born early or you could end up being a
Baboy). Even better, parents can create whole families
of, say, desserts (Apple Pie, Cherry Pie, Honey Pie)
or flowers (Rose, Daffodil, Tulip). The main advantage
of such combinations is that they look great painted
across your trunk if you're a cab driver. That's
another thing I'd never seen before coming to Manila
- taxis with the driver's kids' names on the trunk.
Another whole eye-opening field for the foreign
visitor is the phenomenon of the "composite" name.
This includes names like Jejomar (for Jesus, Joseph
and Mary), and the remarkable Luzviminda (for Luzon,
Visayas and Mindanao, believe it or not). That's a bit
like me being called something like "Engscowani" (for
England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).
Between you and me, I'm glad I'm not.
And how could I forget to mention the fabulous concept
of the randomly-inserted letter 'h'. Quite what this
device is supposed to achieve, I have not yet figured
out, but I think it is designed to give a touch of
class to an otherwise only averagely weird name. It
results in creations like Jhun, Lhenn, Ghemma, and
Jhimmy. Or how about Jhun-Jhun (Jhun2)?
There is also a whole separate field of name games --
those where the parents have exhibited a creative
sense of humor on purpose. I once had my house in
London painted by a Czechoslovakian decorator by the
name of Peter Peter. I could never figure out if his
parents had a fantastic sense of humor or no
imagination at all -- it had to be one or the other.
But here in the Philippines, wonderful imagination and
humor is often applied to the naming process,
particularly, it seems, in the Chinese community. My
favourites include Bach Johann Sebastian; Edgar Allan
Pe; Jonathan Livingston Sy; Magic Chiongson, Chica Go,
and my girlfriend's very own sister, Van Go. I am
assured these are real people, although I've only met
two of them. I hope they don't mind being mentioned
How boring to come from a country like the UK full of
people with names like John Smith. How wonderful to
come from a country where imagination and exoticism
rule the world of names. Even the towns here have
weird names; my favorite is the unbelieveably-named
town of Sexmoan (ironically close to Olongapo and
Angeles). Where else in the world could that really be
true? Where else in the world could the head of the
Church really be called Cardinal Sin? Where else in
the world could Angel, Gigi and Mandy be grown-up men?
Where else could you go through adult life
unembarrassed and unassailed with a name like
Mosquito, or Pepper, or Honey Boy?
Where else but the Philippines!