Mongolian Names

They are pleasing. They mean something. Intentions and hopes are revealed. Even my name means something (comb). Most anyplace you go, I found when I spent time in the country ten years ago, you could ask what something meant and you got a straight answer: Dornod, east; Erdenet, copper; Ark hangai, north mountains. The same was true of people’s names. With a few Tibetan-import exceptions, Mongolian names are transparent: Batbold, hard metal; Enkhzaya: peace destiny; Erdenbileg: precious gift; Maandai, sunrise. One pretty girl I met had a skin disease that was fading the colour from her face. She wore socks while everyone else went barefoot. Her name was Battsetseg, hard flower.

A woman called Bayarmaa (celebration) explained to me that the reason for naming children after material things was to deceive bad spirits that would otherwise recognise them as people and attempt to carry them off. (Very young babies sometimes have charcoal dabbed on their foreheads to disguise them as rabbits for the same reason). Most Mongolian names disguise people as objects to achieve this end. But sometimes they are directly addressed to the supernatural, making for such names as Tenbish, “Not that”; Enbish, “Not this”; and the unreal: Henbish, “No one” or “Not a person”. Mongolians also rename sickly children, especially if they carry grand names. Bayarmaa’s nephew was called Nomintenger, Sapphire Sky, a heady name in a country that worships the heavens. “His mother took him to the lama who said he should have a lesser name,” said Bayarmaa. “Now he is called Odontsatsral, the rays of a star.”

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Work on plants

I always get a happy jolt when someone tweets or mentions that they have read a story I wrote a few years ago for the Guardian about the theft of a tiny water lily from Kew Gardens. (The story is here). But I much more rarely hear about an article that appeared in Harper’s magazine a few months later, about the Japanese Knotweed. Perhaps forlornly, I have decided to post it in its entirety here. It was outside the paywall on the Harper’s site. I’m not making any great claims for it as a piece of writing, but the narrative of the weed, and its Dutch exporter, entrepreneur, doctor and lover, Philipp Franz von Siebold, is one of my all-time favourites and I think of it often. The story begins below.

Knotweed headline

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