I’ve always been fascinated by last names. I come from a culture where every name you’re given has special and even prophetic meaning. Though the African might be more intentional in picking a predictive name than the average Westerner, nearly all names of all cultures are bubbling with meaning.
Ovienmhada isn’t just an assortment of characters that sounds cool, it actually means something in my family’s native tongue, Esan. It’s a name that is a parable, and a title that one of our ancestors who was an Onojie (king) of his township gave himself. It means:
“The scepter of a king.”
“Ovie” (pronounced oh-v-yay) means king (like Onojie) and isn’t an uncommon Edo first or last name. I’m a bit more confused about the “nmhada”, which I’m guessing means scepter. But I’m familiar with a second translation of this name which is where the parable comes from.
“The scepter of a king does not belong in the hands of a slave.”
But that seems way too long of a meaning to derive from a five syllable word, of which the first three syllables mean “king”. I doubt the last two syllables mean “does not belong in the hands of a slave.” So it could be that the name was derived from an old saying.
From what I’ve been told about the name, it only goes back at most 4 or 5 generations, and the Onojie changed his surname to Ovienmhada because it was a title that he gave himself. So the actual family name may have been abandoned. This isn’t uncommon for rulers to do as a way to distinguish themselves from their predecessors, but it makes things complicated for historical research when you don’t have a written history.
This has good and bad implications for me. On one hand, as a native West-African, I know my family history going back several generations on my father’s side, and we are privileged to keep our meaningful surnames, and who doesn’t want to be descended from royalty? But there’s the disappointment of the idea that 4 or 5 generations back puts us smack dab in the middle of the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade, which if the second definition of our last name is true, my family probably played a part.
Esan people didn’t have their own written language, unfortunately, until we adopted English characters, which makes retelling our history more difficult as we get further back before Europeans arrived, but my tribe’s name itself has a meaning. Esan means “they have fled” or “they have jumped away.” Esans were originally part of the Benin Empire in Nigeria, but according to the story, some princes and nobles fled with their families and relocated during the reign of a particularly despotic king.
Much of the history of my people is actually written in Portuguese. I’ll often find gems on the internet that have been translated from Portuguese explorers, or missionaries, that provide historical accounts about the various Obas of Benin.
As a Christian, I take the Ovienmhada parable to have a parallel meaning:
“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” 1 Corinthians 6:12
For me to live up to my last name, means that I cannot be a slave to anything. I cannot have addictions. I must be intentional about my life.
European Last Names
This is my favorite European last name. It means “Morning Star” in German. I’m particularly fond of the name because of this bible verse:
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.” Revelation 22:16
The surname supposedly originated from Ashkenazi Jews living in Germany, which would mean it probably has nothing to do with that New Testament bible verse.
This has a funny story behind it, because it resulted in an argument between me and my German-speaking wife, which is a big part of the point of this article. We were watching the September 9th Apple Event (where they revealed the iPhone 6s and iPad Pro), and one of the presenters was a Kirk Koenigsbauer from Microsoft.
Immediately I exclaimed, “Kirk ‘Something Tree’!” Not realizing how rusty my German was. My wife, having been born and raised in Germany clarified that Koenig meant King.
“Ah, King’s tree!” I exclaimed, “Nice.”
She then reminded me that “bauer” didn’t mean tree. I was confusing it with “baum” which is the German word for tree. So then I said, “Ok, then what does bauer mean?”
“It’s just a common last name,” (e.g. Jack Bauer) she replied.
“Oh, no-no. It’s not just a name,” I insisted, “It means something!”
Finally, a check of Google Translate found that bauer means “peasant” in German. Jack Bauer from the hit TV Show 24, his name is “Jack Peasant” in full English.
Now I was thoroughly confused, because “King’s tree” made way more sense as a last name than “King’s peasant.”
Let me explain. In the Benin Empire the Oba (king)1 of Benin had something called the King’s Tree. It was a peculiar tree that was purported to have Juju powers, that only the King could touch. In order to halt trade, the King would order a branch cut from this tree and be placed on the trade route, signifying a death penalty to cross the threshold. So powerful was this superstition, that the British could not force their native guides to cross any time the King put a branch in the road.
So having that knowledge, I thought, “Oh, maybe the Europeans had their own version of a King’s Tree at some point, a ‘Koenigsbaum’, maybe not exactly like Benin’s Juju tree, but not unlike how the California state tree is the Redwood.”
But no, the name was “Koenigsbauer” which means “King’s Peasant”. That’s a little confusing, isn’t it? Are you descended from kings, or are you descended from peasants, or was an ancestor forced by a king to bear that name as a punishment, like, “You’re my peasant now, and you’ll be a good peasant to me”? Or maybe it was an honor or a way of showing loyalty to the king.
Every name has a story behind it. I’d really like to know the origin of this.
The first time I came across this name was in a movie about Vikings and Native Americans called Pathfinder. Ironically, it wasn’t any of the fictional characters that bore the name, it was the leading actress. Her name is Moon Bloodgood.
Now you’ve got to ask yourself, what ancestor decides that the name “Blood is good” is a great last name? What’s the story there? I was thinking it’s some sort of Viking warrior name.
Some research found that the first Bloodgood in America was a Dutch man named Frans Jansen Bloetgoet. He’s the ancestor of the American Bloodgoods.
First, I found that Bloodgood is the Anglicized form of Dutch “Bloetgoet,” which means the same exact thing in Dutch. The Dutch are Scandinavians, and Scandinavia is where the Vikings are from, so we’re at least on the right track.
Either it’s a Viking warrior name, or it means something like “blood is thicker than water,” basically, that family is important, or “We come from good blood” (i.e. noble ancestry). I’ve come across the Dutch name Goetbloet, so maybe the latter interpretation has more credence.
The Earliest Generations of the Goetbloet alias Bloetgoet family by John Blythe Dobson has some great research.
I was expecting another warrior style name meaning “kill” and “gore”, again with the assumption that warriors would give themselves badass last names, but Kilgore is Scottish that comes from a town called Kilgour in the county of Fife, near Falkland. Kilgour means “goat wood” in Gaelic.
I knew a kid in high school on an opposing football team with this last name.
I was thinking it was either Italian, like “bellisimo” which means beautiful or Hungarian, like “Bela,” which means heart. Those were my “educated” guesses.
But again, I was wrong. It turns out to be a Norman/French name, from beu/bel “handsome” and ami “friend,” meaning “Handsome friend.”
So who decided he was going to name his family “handsome friend”? Was he handsome, and a good friend?
Iron man’s Tony Stark has a German last name. Stark means “strong”.
This is an English surname that means “violent”. Literally.
African American last names
Now, in my ignorance of African-American history (remember, I’m a Nigerian) I thought that black American last names were the last names of the slave owners of their ancestors. In which case I thought, “Why not just change the name?”
I when I was a kid, I used to think, “Whoever Mr. Williams was, he must have owned a ton of slaves.”
I remember watching two separate movies or documentaries about Muhammad Ali and Malcom X when I was a child, where they called their previous names their “slave name.” This is probably where my misunderstanding came from. Fortunately, I was wise enough to keep this misunderstanding to myself, as not to offend anyone.
In fact, most emancipated slaves did change their names according to the research I’ve done. You can often find the same family bearing a different name in 1880 than they did in 1870. Some slaves did take their former master’s name but only if there was some benefit to it. Most picked new last names that they fancied, or names of popular presidents, or something like “Freeman” to signify their new status.
The ten most common African American names in 2000 were: Williams, Johnson, Smith, Jones, Brown, Jackson, Davis, Thomas, Harris, and Robinson.
As religious as African Americans are, I’m surprised that more didn’t take biblical last names like Ephraim or Manasseh.
My favorite African American last name?
Africans with European names
Probably most confusing for me are European last names on Nigerians that aren’t (or don’t look to be) of mixed ancestry.
I look like I have some European ancestry (light complexion, heavy full beard, brown hair as a baby, less kinky hair) but a DNA test confirmed that I’m 98% West African and 100% Sub-saharan African, despite my light complexion. I don’t have a single drop of European, Asian, or any other non-African DNA.
So all the features I have, which are common among my family members and Esan tribe, evolved right in Africa.
After being repeatedly told that I don’t “look Nigerian” I should know better than to judge a book by it’s cover, but I am curious how people that look 10 times as “Nigerian” as I do have European last names.
It seems like every Nigerian last name I come across starts with with a vowel, like O, A, or E: Ovienmhada, Ojougboh, Oludigi, Oloyede, Ojukwu, Onyeabor, Adenuga, Akinlosotu, Akinduro, Amechi, Adeyemi, Akinyemi, Akinwande, Aire, Ehiemua, Ewuware, Emeka, Edosoman, Egbe, Ekhomu, Enemoh.
So when I see “Thomas” (a bible name) as the last name of a Nigerian I can sort of explain it by a conversion to Catholicism. But a name like “Hughes” does surprise me a little. If I was in Liberia, it wouldn’t surprise me, because I know Liberia’s history allows for a lot of European surnames (e.g. ex president of Liberia, Charles Taylor). In Nigeria, it’s a bit more surprising (e.g. ex president Goodluck Jonathan).
It could be that Nigerian elite who worked for the British simply changed their names to sound more British. It could be from American or European ex-slaves that found their way back to Nigeria. Or it could be interracial marriage by a European male up the ancestry line at some point. Or it could be a form of religious conversion.
I’m not passing judgement either way. I’m genuinely curious how such names came about.
One of my favorite first names on a Nigerian relative is Cairo.
A non-Nigerian first name or middle name is not that strange, because at least one of the names are usually allowed to be Anglicized or Christian.
The typical naming schema that I’m used to (in order of First-Middle-Last) is Nigerian-Nigerian-Nigerian or Christian-Nigerian-Nigerian or Nigerian-Christian-Nigerian.
The rule I have for my children is Christian-Nigerian-Nigerian.
Middle Eastern Last Names
It means “happy” or “blessed”. The country Saudi Arabia gets it’s name from Ibn Saud, the patriarch of the Saudi Royal family that founded Saudi Arabia in 1932. He named the country after his last name because, why not? So Saudi Arabia means “Blessed land of the Arabs” or “Happy land of the Arabs.”
If you’re European or American, you probably know it as Cohen. Kohen is the Hebew word for priest, and –– theoretically –– families that bear this name are descended from the Old Testament priesthood, which in turn requires that they be descended from the biblical Aaron. That’s kind of crazy, isn’t it? If you see a Cohen, and they have the right DNA markers (they actually test for this), they could be a direct descendant of a bible character.
What does your last name mean?
Let me know in the comments, especially if you have a manly Viking last name like “smash skull” or something.
Photo Credits: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Equestrian Oba and Attendants), World Economic Forum (President Goodluck Jonathan), TaleWorlds Entertainment (Viking Art)
No, it’s not a typo. Oba, Onojie, and Ovie all mean “king” but they’re in different dialects of the same root language, which is Edo.↩