Axe-Hero and Golden-Flower… aka Mongolian Names and Traditions

When I first arrived here, names killed me. Every time I was introduced to someone, they would whisper their names under muttered breath, a seemingly indecipherable combination of consonants. Of course it always gets better, and now I’m fascinated by Mongolian names, where they come from and how they derive themselves from multiple languages. The topic is even interesting enough to warrant its own Wikipedia page! Which is where, lets face it, where I got most of my information from, on top of what my CPs and friends have told me.

When Mongolia was mainly a conglomeration of wandering nomadic tribes, most names centered on a ‘tribal’ and given name. It was so long a go that a lot of traditional names are lost to us, mostly due the influx of Tibetan Buddhism in the 1700s, when the fad became Tibetan names, pushing out names rooted in ancient shamanistic culture. These Tibetan names still are prevalent today, mostly originating in days of the week (Nyamaa, Lkhouga , etc). As Russian culture became influential in Mongolia, it wasn’t uncommon to have Russian names like Ivan, Nicola, or Alexei mashed in as well.

Nowadays, Mongolian names tend to follow this rule: either a noun + an adjective, or a noun + noun which equals a traditional Mongolian name. Cities follow this pattern; The capital city , Ulaan Baatar, means Red Hero (still retaining a little socialist flavor there), A regional capital is called Sukhbaatar which means Axe Hero. Some of my teachers names, with their translations are;

  • Uugantsetseg – “first spring flower” ( this name is traditionally given to the first child in a family.
  • Dorjbat – “Firm power” (origins in Tibetan)
  • Ganchimeg – “steel gift”
  • Altansukh – “golden axe”
  • Odonchimeg – “Starry decoration”
  • Just to name a few students – Michid-Od, the name of a particular constellation, Altantsetseg or “Golden Flower”, a pair of sisters called Saikhanzaya which means “good destiny” and Uyounzaya which means “wise destiny” … the list goes on.

Luckily these names get shortened into names like Uugii, Odonaa, Ganaa, Ulzii or even Dogii. The downside with this that many of our friends amoungst volunteers will have the same nickname, which causes our conversations to constantly reiterate “What, which Ulzii are you talking about ? Your schools Ulzii or World Vision Ulzii?”, or “Wait do you mean boy Ganaa or girl Ganaa?”. While people do have a family or ‘fathers name’ which acts as a last name, they aren’t commonly used, especially amongst friends, so that doesn’t help much.

One interesting aspect of Mongolian naming tradition are so-called Taboo Names. Names like “Terbish” which means “not this”, “Khunbish” which is “not a person” and, my personal favorite, “Nerbish” which is “No Name”. Usually its those of an older generation have these names, and are given to children if previous sibling have passed way. The negativity of the names are meant to dissuade bad spirits from causing those children harm. . These taboo names are less common nowadays, for a range of reasons like the lowering of infant mortality to just not being fashionable. Though its unique aspect of Mongolian names that I find interesting… I mean lets admit, being called No-Name is pretty badass.

I guess what I like about Mongolian names at the end of the day is the unique meaning they have when they are transliterated. Of course, when I asked my Mongolian friends if they say names as if they are transliterated- “Like, do you think “Golden Axe” when you say “Altansukh”? ” , to which they say ” Nah, its just a name. Its only when you ask that we think about it” , which in many ways is similar to the way we think about our names in the Western tradition. Usually derived from old words and archaic vocabulary, they are what they are… just names. Same in Mongolia.

If you would like to learn more check out here and here. They go far more into detail about the history of this topic as I barely scratched the surface.

In other news – its officially the end of the nine nines, and actually got up to 44 degrees today. It felt sweltering. I might need to start wearing thinner socks. So starts the beginning of the end, warmer climes and spring time. I will be looking forward to it 🙂

Hope this finds you warm! – V.


One comment

  1. It there a culture of giving foreigners their “Mongolian Name?”

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