What’s in a name?


“That is a big name for a little girl” is a phrase I often heard as a young child when I would be introduced to adults. I was named after my paternal great-grandmother. Although I never got to know her personally, I heard many stories around the dinner table from her son, my grandfather, Waldo. One of 9 siblings, Grandpa was born in 1905 on a farm in rural Pennsylvania. He spoke of great-grandmother Johanna’s twice weekly baking sprees and how her cooking filled the house with the smells of fresh bread that had to feed a household of as many as 15 people. He remembered his mother digging up potatoes in the fields until her contractions were so strong that she came in the house to give birth to one of his siblings only to return the next day to her work in the fields. We learned how she cared for the sick during the flu of 1918 and refused to learn to drive or initially ride in that crazy car one of her sons brought home and said was the wave of the future. I had no doubt that she was a strong woman and that sharing her name was an honor, however it was not a common name, and was often mispronounced. My family pronounces my name with a soft “a” as in arm or father – Jo-Ha-Na. This did not come naturally to the western New Yorkers I grew up with who relished the nasal harder “a.” More often than not I was called Joe-Hannah with an “a” sound like in hat or nasty. I have also mistakenly been called JoAnn or Joanna often enough that I turn my head when those names are called. But, as difficult as my name was for many, I didn’t develop any nicknames until I was much older. With correct or incorrect pronunciation, I was always Johanna.

While in Sri Lanka, however, I collected many names. I was Baba, or the Sinhala word for Baby or young one among many adult circles. If I was with my younger sister, Janelle, I became Akka, older sister. Our gardener sometimes called me Nungi which means little sister since that what was our relationship was like. And, in the markets in Kandy, some of the vendors called me Tourist Namae which basically translates to “Not a tourist.” “Here comes not a tourist!” they would joke with each other after they heard me protest again and again that I lived in Kandy and should not be mistaken for a vacationer. Each of the nicknames gives you a glimpse into the relationship with the person who bestows it upon you.

As an island and as a nation, Sri Lanka has also had a long list of identities each of which gives us a slice of its long and varied history. Speak to multiple Sri Lankans and you will hear as many former names for the country. Some say the original name was some derivation of Tamraparni which may have come from Sanskrit for copper-colored from copper hued beaches on which early settlers landed. Still others think the name means red or copper-colored leaves. Another early name for the island derived from an ancient Tamil word, Cerentivu. Each time a trader or invader came to the island, the native name would make its way back to their faraway land changed by lazy tongues and misunderstandings. Or, is often the case when somebody falls in love, visiting tradesmen would give the island their own pet name. The Arab vendors called the nation Serendib or Serendip. This name gave rise to Horace Walpole coining the term serendipity in at 1754 letter to mean a happy accident or a pleasant surprise. I always felt this an appropriate name because of how much I happily and unexpectedly discovered during my stay in Sri Lanka. Other names included Helabima and Zeilan, which the English changed to Ceylon. While invaders and merchants called the island many things across the globe, the native population ultimately settled on Lanka. I have heard from inhabitants both that Lanka means island and beautiful and have read books which claimed both as well. Whatever the original meaning, both certainly apply to the nation. The prefix Sri, was added in 1972 when the name was officially changed to Sri Lanka. Interestingly, the honorific prefix is said by some to mean holy, but by others it is said to signify beautiful. So, Sri Lanka may actually mean “beautiful beautiful.” If you think that is too idyllic, the real official name is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. I am sure, like me, the people of Sri Lanka are used to their country being called the wrong name and it is certainly “a big name for a little island.”


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Johanna is a theatre producer who currently lives with her family in New Hampshire.

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