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Filipinos once had homely but more magical names

Ages back when life was simpler and sweeter, our forebears gifted us with equally plain and preciously simple names that stuck. No, such awkward-sounding names don’t suck. Our forebears meant well.

The names breathed of the spiritual, every name professing the bearer’s faith. Their plainness throbbed and thrummed of the Filipino collective soul’s yearning for protection and guidance from benign powers-that-be.

Sure, most of ‘em names didn’t sound musical, extraordinary, fashionable or reeked of the “stateside” unlike the names whimsically tabbed to offspring of city dwellers. The plainest Juan was a pleading for God’s boon. The name means “blessed of God.” Awkward-sounding Pedro or Petra signifies more than musical rock – it’s the Rock upon which the incarnate God built his place of worship. Such a name was home-shrine to holiness and rock-solid traits.

To our old folks, each name was a magical mantra, an orison for invoking power bequeathed to a beloved heir. They treasured the significance more than the fashionable ring or occidental zing to a name. Repetition of a mantra works up a sonic alchemy and musters the powers inherent in the sounding out of a name.

Writer Maximo D. Ramos explains with a whit of complaint that in the past, “believing that a saint shielded those who bore his name from disease, poverty, and sin, parents gave the names of Christian saints to their children. Most priests in my youth, Catholic or Aglipayan, refused to baptize a baby unless the name of a saint was to be given to it.

“And our folks made the saints’ homely names even homelier. The name Gervasio could be considered musical, but they turned it into the harsh Ibbas. Pedro became Iddo or Illo. Pablo was transmogrified to Ambo, Francisco to Pako, Eustaquio to Istak, Alejandro to Allong, and Eulogio to Okiong.”

Lucky for Ramos, a noted folklorist and erstwhile dean of Manila-based University of the East College of Arts and Sciences, his parents zeroed in on Maximo “from the almanac where these saints’ names appeared. Though I did not know what saint first bore it, I thanked my folks for choosing it rather than the alternatives, Hisiquio and Odon, appearing in the same (almanac) slot.

Plying out more plaints, he adds: “Girls’ names in my town were equally plain. My mother was Petra and was, of course, called Etrang. My eldest sister was lucky enough to get the sweet name Maria, but the neighbors promptly transformed it to Mayyang and Ayyang. Another sister, Andrea languished under the nickname Odiang. A third sister has been luckier. My mother named her Martina but she basks in her nickname of Tining. There are such frights as Osang (derived from Fructuosa or Marcosa) and Akang (from Ciriaca).”

To be inflicted with such horror on one’s person was acceptable, though. Ramos points out that our elders then believed that certain demonic beings resembling European dwarfs kidnapped children with fancy and nice-sounding names.

He recounts an event involving a good-looking but sickly brother: “It was believed that his good looks and his nice name made the imaginary little old men unduly fond of him. So one day my mother whispered something in the ear of her sister-in-law Enyang – baptized Irenea, of course – and left my brother playing in the yard at noon the next day when dwarfs where thought to be around in people’s yards.”

Irenea came by and quickly spirited off Ramos’ brother with the nice-sounding name, taking him to her home on a distant part of town. There, the “kidnapped” child was made to go through a cleansing rite in which he was bathed in “a decoction of lemon grass, called baranibod (tanglad in Tagalog) and the shrub subusob (sambong in Tagalog, gabon in Visayan, and Blumea balsamefera in the botany department).”

After such bath with sweet-smelling medicinal herbs, the child was thoroughly soaked up with smoke from guava leaves, chicken feathers and shavings from pig and carabao hoofs burning in a clay brazier. That done, the well-meaning aunt renamed the child as Idot, short for the Iloko name Napidot (“One Found by Chance”). Later that day when the dwarfs were said to be back prowling in folks’ premises, Ramos’ mother called on Enyang to fetch her son and pay a token ransom to reclaim the “kidnap” victim.

Relates Ramos: “My aunt shouted to her that the child was hers, not my mother’s, but added that she could have him if she paid the price. My mother then gave her a copper coin and took my brother home. From then on, he was Idot, a tag that stuck so well I have almost forgotten that he was originally baptized Francisco. Unfortunately, not even m aunt’s (mystic) tactic could get rid of the influenza virus in my brother, and Idot, together with a younger brother Ippin (from Crispin) died in the influenza epidemic of 1918.”

Even so, belief in such creatures of the netherworld remained. Folklore has it that these gnome-like beings owned all the land there is. Farmers could live on the land and churn out produce only if they paid rent to these preternatural landlords. The rent: unsalted cakes made from glutinous rice and unsalted, unspiced stew from the meat of a white chicken.

Such creatures were said to be fabulously wealthy. It was said to own the mines, too, possess large jars of gold and precious stones and live in magnificent if cheerless bachelor’s quarters which it tried to liven up by enticing good-looking boys and girls. Make that girls whom it later married into its nether realm. It was also believed to lure children whom it found playing out in the fields or it made the children ill, even killed them to steal their souls.

“Now, how did this supposedly myopic creature knew that a child was good-looking and was thus worth kidnapping? Here is where its acute hearing came into play. The dwarf lingered under the eaves of people’s homes at noon and at nightfall listening to children and to any reports about them. It was often the girl with a sweet name or voice whom it enticed or magically carried off while she was asleep.

The common admonition that a girl should not sing while cooking supper or lie down beside the stove because an elderly man or widower would marry her if she did was based on this folk belief. Originally the elderly suitor was not a human being but a lakay or nuno, and either word, Iloko or Tagalog, could mean “grandfather,” “old man,” or “dwarf.”

Such belief has nudged our forebears to give plain names to their offspring. The same belief led many of our old folks to avoid paying compliments to their progeny. The custom spun off into their aversion to public displays of affection for their children and even for kith and kin.

Notes Ramos: “In public they were as a rule harsh to us young ones, customarily calling us demons, shameless ones, sons of lightning. This, however, was all for public display, for in private they were tender and loving to their children.”

Ah, need we point to the most honorable Jabez in the Old Testament? His mother named him as such, “born in pain.” Proudly did he bear the name. Plus the heaven-sent rewards that with it came.


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