Names — You are free to choose

Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame; Each to his passion; what’s in a name?

– Helen Hunt Jackson, American poet

It has been an observed obligation cum tradition that Iban parents honour their ancestors to name their newborn.

Due to parochial movements and settlements of our forebears in the past, we have common names in the Saribas and Krian basins such as Kendawang, Endawie, Naga, Ampoi, Beti, Tingom, Kalum, Naing, Dana, Nanang, Kechendai, Dunggau, Langi for males and many more.

If you go to Kanowit, Julau and Kapit you will find common names such as Selan, Gerinang, Moahari, Tedong, Jugah, Sandum, Runggai and others.

There are also common names in the river basins such as Renggi, Langi, Engkamat, Linggi, Jatan, Ampi, Amit, Nanta, Medan, Kana, Sering, Lembang, Laja, Demong, Enjup, Jarup, Jabu and those involving figures such as Sembilan, Tujuh, Minggu, Satu for females (pronounced as Satu’/Satuq) and Jemat or its English equivalent Friday as well as many more.

While serving in a teachers college in Bintangor and later in a few schools from Kanowit to Bau and of course going around the longhouses in Betong, Debak and Saratok, 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/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 don’t be surprised if one comes across names such as Helikopta, Bilun, Jipun, Engkabang, Bala, Gata, Beruang and some others.

These are Iban words — engkabang means illipe nut; bilun means airplane; Helikopta must have come from ‘helicopter’ while Jipun is Iban term for Japanese.

These are names that started appearing after 1941, the start of the Japanese Occupation in Sarawak.

Some of my relatives are named Bilun and Jipun while Helikopta was my trainee at Rajang Teachers College. For that matter, Iban term for helicopter is bilun buah engkabang.

My nephew and niece are named respectively Bala and Gata — derived from a big crowd at a feast during his birth and a regatta in Saratok.

In schools, I came across two Iban students named after the assassinated US president John Kennedy whereas a high-ranking judiciary official is named after two of the country’s leaders combined, namely Nixon Kennedy. There are also a few named Churchill after the British WW2 premier, Saddam and Sadat after the two ME leaders of different eras.

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

My elder brother Edward Jelani named his second son Jokerson as my nephew was born while the father was busy playing gin rummy (where jokers are featured). In fact, he was born on Valentine’s Day but that name was already taken by yours truly.

Jokerson’s younger sister was named May as she was born on May 1, 46 years ago, thereby is happily serenaded by the iconic Bee Gees number First of May on her birthdays.  

There is also a relative named Berayan — the Iban equivalent of ‘accidently dropped/miscarried’— for being born ‘dropping’ from the birth canal while the mother was enroute to a detached latrine outside their longhouse about 55 years ago. Berayan’s deformed torso is proof of this adversity.

An Ulu Krian family named the brothers Kilat, Guntur and Ngitar, Iban words for ‘lightning’, ‘storm’ and ‘thunder’ respectively.

In the past, those clerks registering names of newborn sometimes blundered by recording/spelling names wrongly.

For instance, a teacher (later headmaster) in Kanowit whose name should be Ranggi was spelt as ‘Hangih’ in his birth certificate. 

Another Sibu man carried with him up and down his written name as ‘Krakkakkak’ despite his original name being Kerukik (he pronounced it as Kehukik due to ‘R’ poser) whereas my late maternal grandma had her name written as Juan in her IC though it should be Kejuang — she was born in 1891 and died aged 97 in 1988. 

Nowadays, only a small number of Iban parents, especially those residing in longhouses, still maintain the tradition of naming kids after their forebears.

Many city parents are slowly leaving the nostalgia; perhaps due to poor knowledge of genealogy or purposely adapting their favoured modern names.

Due to free choice, there are Iban kids going by the names of John Owen, Macartney, Macdonald, Maxwell, Carter, Maradona and other popular icons, including Elvis.