Names — courtesy and confusion

If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.

Kendrick Lamar, American rapper

There are several obligations and ‘taboos’ — so-called actually — when it comes to addressing and calling names among the Ibans, be it in the past or present.

These pertain to our basic social courtesy, respect for elders, filial piety and other intricacies related to traditional customs and cultural traits that put much emphasis on respect, humility and many more including amiability as well as altruistic virtues and morality.

While being an undergraduate between 1975 and 1978, I came to know and became a good boy — he called me ‘anak’ (son) — for Benedict Sandin Ato (1918-1981), whose name plate at the Centre of Policy Research of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang was printed with Dr Benedict Sandin, that gave my good friend a wide smile all the time.

It was through him I befriended Prof Dr Clifford Sather who taught us an opted paper in Year 2. On Christmas Eve of 1975, I met Prof Derek Freeman of Australian National University (ANU) who was the mentor for James Jemut Masing (now Tan Sri Datuk Amar Dr).

During the meeting with Freeman at Sather’s residence, both Sather and Sandin were around. We discussed a number of matters regarding the Iban community, including names and related courtesies.

Freeman, who was still fluent in Iban — Sather then was still learning (but later improved after being attached to Univeristi Malaysia Sarawak) — spoke the lingo and addressed me as ‘bakih’ (buddy), a popular Batang Rajang preference.

Sandin and I acknowledged the common Iban pet names for those in Saribas and Krian basins and also in other areas of Sarawak, including Limbang, Miri, Kapit, Bintulu, Sibu, Simanggang and elsewhere. 

For example, for males, the most common ones are Ujang, Igat, Dom, Wat, Mau, (also used for females) and a few more. For the opposite gender, the most common ones are Endu, Endun, Endat, Ulat, Iyak and Umang.

There are many more as different areas have different preferences. In fact, Jang, Wat, Igat are used to mutually address one another as other similarly as perembian (mutual name calling or pet name that I will mention later if space allows).

There are pet names commonly used in mutual address (shared) of each other.

For males, the common brotherly addresses are anggat, unggal, uchak, tuai, kaban, menyadi (meaning brother or sister for both genders), akih/bakih while for females, they may use umbau, wai (also applicable for males too), sulu (literally means ‘love or lover’) and a few more. Some do use akih or bakih too.

Within the family, fondly used addresses are apai/apak (dad), indai/mak (mum), aki (grandpa), ini (grandma), adi (younger brother/sister/ brother-in-law and sister-in-law), aka (elder sibling) and ika (older brother-in-law/sister-in-law). The term ipar is also commonly used to address sibling-in-laws.

There is no issue on these but there are ‘taboos’ in married life pertaining to mentioning names of our parent-in-laws. It is busung (can result in curse or spell) to call your father-in-law and mother-in-law by their names. As such, they are usually called as aya (uncle) or apai/apak and ibu (aunty) or indai/mak. It is also safe and respectful to address their siblings similarly too as it is greater busung to call them by their names.

On the perembian,there are numerous common ones used such as buat, jui, sambi, saum, jang and many more including chinat (sperm or semen) used by my two late uncles (second cousins).

The issue pertains to a big number of parents and grandparents who prefer to be called as apai/aki or indai/ini so and so. For example, there are hundreds of ‘Apai/Aki Boy’ and ‘Indai /Ini Boy’. Some parent-in-laws call their son-in-laws/daughter-in-laws as ‘Apai Uchu or Indai Uchu’. 

Grandparents have names such as ‘Aki/Ini Kuching’ (for those working or residing in Kuching while similarly there are ‘Aki Miri’ and ‘Ini Miri’ too. This situation has led to many who do not know their real names, including their own family members, especially the grandkids.

WaiFM, an RTM Iban radio channel is well-known for sending messages using these apai or indai so and so, an item that truly causes confusion, especially when it comes to messages on demises/funerals or ngetas ulit (end of mourning event).

Even in song requests for its programmes, the channel also allows this. Only one deejay would ask for the person’s real name before entertaining his/her request or message. 

By not calling real name is typical Iban courtesy but at times, this could lead to confusion. Some siblings call each other by names but some by a mutual address.

For instant my elder brother Jon and I address as other as ‘uchak’ — he can’t call me Tawi because it is the namesake of his mother-in-law’s male sibling.