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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