Inventively naming kids the Iban way

Have you heard of fancy names such as Helikopta, Engkabang, Bilun and Jipun?

These are products of inventive, sometimes humorous Iban parents when it comes to naming their kids at birth or upon reporting the births at the National Registration Office (JPN) or with their clerk at the District Office.

While serving in a teachers’ college and later in a few schools from Kanowit to Bau and of course going around the longhouses in Krian, Saribas, along the Rajang basin from Bawang Assan in Sibu to Nanga Mujong in Baleh, Kapit; from Medamit in Limbang to Temburong in Brunei, I came across peculiar names, thanks to imaginative Iban parents, who, instead of conventionally deriving names from their forebears or ancestors, name their offspring after an event, a happening, a phenomenon, or even after world leaders and ‘others’, the latter posing the question “to name or not to name?” as in Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be”. 

So out of these we come across aforementioned names such a Helikopta after a helicopter while Bilun (aeroplane) as well as Engkabang (illipeanut) which are related to each other — Bilun buah Engkabang is Iban word for helicopter.

I know a few in Saratok named Jipun, mostly born in 1941 or 1942 during the Japanese Occupation as Jipun is the Iban word for Japan and Japanese.

Two of them are my relatives. These might have something to do with the enhanced presence of helicopters at the beginning of the Japanese era in Sarawak.

In schools I came across two students named after assassinated US President John Kennedy whereas a Sessions Court judge is named after two of the country’s leaders combined, namely Nixon Kennedy.

There are a few Iban named Churchill, even one or two Saddam and a few Sadat after the two Middle East leaders of different eras.

Some are testaments of history for being named Malaysia, especially those born on Aug 31, 1963 while a relative of mine was given the name Sarawak at birth.

Closer to home and family, my late younger brother who lived only for 40 days was named Tambi (an Iban equivalent of Indian) after a Pakistani carpet seller who lodged with my family at the time of his birth in 1959.   

My big brother Edward Jelani, 77, a veteran Iban RTM recording artiste, named his second son Jokerson Jembu, 44, with the ethnic Iban name after my paternal grandfather whereas Jokerson was chosen as Edward was busy playing a game of ginramy (where cards bearing images of the ‘jokers’ are very useful) when the son was born on Valentine’s Day that year but his uncle already took the name Valentine two decades earlier.

Jokerson’s younger sister Florence May is so named for being born on first of May 44 years ago. As such, the Bee Gees popular song ‘First of May’ always features on her birthdays.

An inventive non-English speaking Iban father named his kid Don Hiroshee that sounds Japanese but I was later told it came from a combination of three English words Don’t Hero She.

In my longhouse in Saratok, there is a nephew named Bala (meaning a lot of people — he was born during a festive celebration) whereas his sister was named Gata at birth, a short form of regatta, which was being held in Saratok at that time.

There is also a relative named Berayan — the Iban equivalent of “accidently dropped or miscarried” — for being born “dropping” from the birth canal while the mother was enroute to a detached latrine outside their longhouse about 50 years ago.

Berayan’s deformed torso is proof of this adversity.

There were times when superstitious Iban parents of old ritualistically chose names for their kids. I remember once during an adoption and name choosing ritual in Sibu circa 1985 where a rooster was deployed to ‘pick’ a given name out of a few choices. 

The one it picked was the name given to the child though I cannot recall the name picked by the fowl.
This answers the question “to name or not to name” which also concerns a case when a name is allegedly not suitable for a child who is frequently sick.

Sentimentality and nostalgia cause Iban parents to name their kids after their forebears.

Christianity brings about some changes but most Iban parents stick to convention in naming their offspring after their forebears. However, sadly this is slowly becoming history as most modern parents do not even know the names of their grandparents.

This becomes a vicious circle thus resulting in them adopting Christian names only.

When we were in Penang some friends made fun of our ethnic names. Some called me Valentine Taruh Seluk whereas my Kelabit friend, now retired former SMK Tebakang principal Carter Ballang Kapong, was teased with names including Kata Balik Kampung.

We did not get offended; in fact we took pride in such teases and our names. The moral is take pride in whatever name given to you. And to take heed of Confucius, don’t laugh at others’ names, unless you want others to laugh at yours.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.