What’s in a Name?

About Eritrea - Art & Sport

My first name is grammatically incorrect. If using the Ge’ez alphabet, my name should be spelled “E-le-n.” I guess my mother was slightly fatigued after giving birth and tossed in an extra “L” to jazz it up a little.

“Ellen” and “Elen” are pronounced differently – and essentially have different meanings.

Growing up in the States, no one outside of the Habesha community back home had any sort of trouble pronouncing my name. It is simple, straightforward and, I would argue, popular within the white American community. But it wasn’t right. I was named by my father after his late sister, Elen. My father was a child when his sister passed away and hardly has any recollection of her. Naming me after her was his way of paying homage and keeping her (symbolically) alive and remembered within our large family.

When I was younger, I noticed the spelling error in my name and immediately disconnected with it. Why? Because the spelling influenced the pronunciation; and it simply seemed too Americanized for me – it didn’t seem as if it truly represented my Eritrean background or my late aunt. I have used a nickname for as long as I can remember and grew up in an Eritrean community where only our closest family and friends were aware of my real name.

My nickname has no real spelling or value behind it (is it “Lili” like the “samna?” Or “Lily” like the flower?) and, thus, I felt no real connection with this alternative name either.

Although this may seem like such an inconsequential issue, names play a crucial role in the identification factor of humans. Upon meeting someone, you introduce your name first. It is a type of label that helps differentiate you from the person beside you. It can be in the form of honoring someone or with an aim to bring uniqueness and originality upon an individual (based on translation or sound/spelling). In the Bible, names were symbolic and significant with meaning – and were even transformed or altered upon life changing events or revelations (i.e. Abram to Abraham or Jacob to Israel). The power of a name is that it is essentially a sort of “code” that one lives up to or defends.

Being named after a loved/deceased relative, a powerful Biblical figure, or even a linguistically “strong” name, is a popular cultural norm with Eritreans at home and abroad, and it is laced with considerable implication – “Are you worthy enough to properly represent your title?”

I was blessed with the burden of being named after a deceased relative and a powerful, sacred figure. And, prior to visiting Asmara for an extended period of time, the answer to the above question was a hard and definite “no.” How could I understand the weight of my name when I didn’t understand its relevance or importance – both to my extended family and in the Bible?

Living in a mainly religious and family-oriented society like Asmara soon put my name in heated discussions with my relatives and even strangers who would inquire in confusion on what “Lili/Lily” even meant. “Your name is so powerful. Why are you hiding behind such a meaningless nickname?” Relatives in my family soon dropped my nickname altogether and unintentionally forced me to hear and get familiar with my birth name (including the accurate pronunciation) over and over. I was finally entering a phase of wanting to accept and understand the name I was given – and essentially understand and accept myself. I began doing this by clarifying my real name upon introducing myself (it became certain that I would hear some sort of commentary or personal opinion on the connotation of it) and even began glancing through the Bible to understand why names were considered to be so vital in embodying an individual’s personal story of triumph or tribulation.

The more often my real name was brought front and center in admiration and conversation, the more I began to look at it in a new light as well. It has allowed me to feel truly connected with extended relatives past the language and long distance barriers, and it has allowed me the opportunity to solidify my identity – two things that I have been on the hunt for prior to arriving in Asmara. On a special note, it has also helped catalyze my interest in Biblical comprehension – something I have always dabbled with but felt highly unfamiliar and unaccustomed to.

So what exactly is the meaning of my name?

Ellen is a play on the name of “Ngesti Elen/Elena/Eleni.” Queen Eleni is known for discovering the burying place of the Cross in Jerusalem and successfully excavating it. In the Tewahdo Orthodox religion, this day is marked and celebrated as “Meskel.” Even more so, she is one of the most notable and significant women in the Orthodox religion – that tends to carry a lot of weight, especially considering how male-centered most scriptural stories tend to be.
Closer to home, Elen is the first child of the Haile family, on my father’s side. She is someone who has helped contribute to the heritage and growth of our family with four generations (and counting!), and someone who I unfortunately was never given the chance to know, but have luckily been afforded the opportunity to epitomize and continue her own personal legacy as well.

Who would have known the impact of a name?