As I make my way through Dalby’s Dictionary of Languages, I run across all sorts of fascinating tidbits in the sidebars. In the entry for Sukuma, an important language of northern Tanzania, there is also information about its sister language Nyamwezi (spoken by far fewer people but noticed first by Europeans), including one of the most remarkable etymologies I’ve seen for an ethnonym:
People who shit the moon
‘The term Nyamwezi is of Swahili origin, and is fairly recent. It arose in the last century during the trade caravans. My grandfather told me that in those days a caravan would leave Tabora at new moon to arrive in Bagamoyo or Dar es Salaam coast at the following new moon. Since this was a regular occurrence, the Zalamo started teasing the caravanists, calling them ‘the people who excrete the moon’, wanyamwezi (from the verb ku-nya) because their arrival at the coast nearly always coincided with the new moon. Apparently, since there had already developed a joking relationship, utani, between the Zalamo and the people from Tabora, the term was not contested. Since my grandfather did in fact take part in the trade caravans, I have every reason to consider his explanation a viable one.’
Now, every other source says Nyamwezi simply means ‘people of the moon [mwezi]’ (or possibly ‘people of the west [mweli]’), and it’s a melancholy truth that the more boring etymology is usually correct. But I want to believe in the moon-shitting caravans. Se non è vero, è ben trovato.
Incidentally, this Swahili verb ku-nya is a good example of the importance of comparative linguistics. On the face of it, it would seem that its two primary meanings, ‘to discharge, let fall, excrete’ and ‘to fall (of rain),’ so closely related, must indicate a single word; in Zulu, however, the first is –nya and the second –na, so we know we are dealing with two different Bantu roots.