I’ve always enjoyed learning about the meanings of names, and living in Kazakhstan is no disappointment. Traditionally, Kazakh parents invited their relatives to a besik toi, a “cradle-party” for their newest child. After gathering around the cradle, an honored guest or relative would be invited to name the child. This person would then whisper into the infant’s ears three times: your name is… your name is… your name is… and so the child was called.
Although a modern besik toi might take place in an urban banquet hall rather than a yurt, Kazakh names are still closely connected to the lived world and the everyday Kazakh language. Below are some of my favorites, as I understand them:
For the Ladies
- Aigerim is very popular. It’s said that the famous Kazakh poet, Abai, cried out “Ai! Kerim!” when he met his favorite wife, or something like “Hey! Beautiful!”
- Karlygash – a swallow
- Zhibek – silk
- Altynay – golden moon
- Ayakoz – beautiful eyes
- Akerke – white mischief-child. (An erke bala is a spoiled or well-loved child.)
- Akbota – white baby-camel
- Mahabbat – love
- Meyirzhan – kind soul
- Samal – breeze
- Tansholpan – morning star
- Umit – hope
- Ulbolsin – and if all these girls have you wishing for a boy, “may the next one be a boy” is a pretty direct request to the fates.
For the Gentlemen
- Chinggis – naming your child after Genghis Khan surely bodes well for the future.
- Nursultan (“light prince”), the current president’s name, also promises a bright future.
- Aitmukhammed – “Mohammed says.” I’m not sure exactly what he says, but the name is striking.
- Balta – an ax
- Arystan – a lion
- Burkit – an eagle
- Kanat – wings
- Yernur – manly light
- Yerkhan – manly king
- Adilet – just, fair
- Kuanish – happiness
- Miras – heritage, inheritance
- Satipaldy (“we bought this one”) is used after an earlier child dies; we’ve already paid our dues….
- Serikbolat (“companion of steel”) Does this sound like the cover of a romance novel, or what?
Names with Meaning
As a child in America, I loved reading books like 10523 Names for your Baby and selecting my favorite meanings. Melissa is a bee? Renee means reborn? Ethan means steadfast? Jonathan is a gift of God? Excellent!
But meanings don’t matter to many American parents, probably because the meanings of many English names are only familiar to our Greek or Latin ancestors. When you hear Celia, do you think Caelum (Latin for the “heavens”) or Cecil (Latin for “blind”)?
I don’t think so.
But when a Kazakh hears Ulbolsin (“boy-be-may you”), the meaning is pretty clear. This might be a wide-eyed little girl in front of you, but the parents still hope in their hearts for a boy. Kanat (“wings”) and Zhibek (“silk”) are both precious names and daily words. Their use is more familiar, more immediate than most of our English names are.
For me, this makes living in Kazakhstan a joy – it’s striking to meet someone new, and instantly know what their name means, to know a bit of their parents’ hopes and fears, just because you know the language.
[This was cross-posted at PocketCultures, a now-dormant blog about cultures worldwide.]