If you’ve ever wondered how name taboos (refusing to say the name, or a word used in the name, of a deceased person) work in practice, read the illuminating post by Claire of Angargoon on the subject.

For Bardi people, the taboo is purely a respect issue and the length of time the name is tabooed depends on how close the relative was and how much respect. For example, when I was there in 2001 an old person died. The people I was working with didn’t like her very much, and they were saying her name even before the funeral, in private. On the other hand, NI’s brother had died in 1990 and she still wouldn’t say his name, likewise her younger son who’d died in a car accident in 1994. The son’s name was Douglas and at the time we were working on materials recorded by the missionary Wilf Douglas in the 1940s. I forgot to call him “Wilf the missionary” at one point and used his full name and NI looked like she’d been hit…


  1. Early in “The Dream of the Red Chamber” (retranslated as “Story of the Stone”) two travelers meet in a public place. One of them misquotes a famous poem, and the other deduces that she (she, I think) was the daughter of a friend whose personal name was in the correct poem.
    Chinese taboos extend to parents during their lifetime. According to report, a child often will not even know his father’s name. Maxine Hong Kingston’s great Woman Warrior has a lot of ancient Chinese customs surviving in 50’s Sacramento. Along with the polite avoidance of official personal names was the power that nicknames and the people who assigned nicknames had over people. Kingston got a particularly insulting nickname (sort of like “quacking girl”). My nickname in Taiwan, I found out as I learned the language was “da duzi” = “big belly”, even though I was really only about 20-30 lbs. overweight.
    “Why doesn’t big belly ever take a bath?” asked my friend’s little son. Knowing some Chinese was a mixed blessing.

  2. A few years ago, I had a recently-arrived Peruvian immigrant as a student in my adult ESL class. His mother, for some unknown reason, named her son Hitler. I truly don’t believe his naming was ideologically motivated, or that the woman had any knowledge of history, to put it mildly. She just gave her son the name of a famous person. Not only did I never call on him by name, I found a reason to transfer him out of my class to another beginning ESL class. On the transfer slip, I wrote Hiller, for his first name, “forgetting” to cross the t. There must be some Jewish custom, suppressed in my subconsciousness, that didn’t let me utter him most unfortunate name.

  3. Michael Farris says

    If it’s any consolation, I knew a Peruvian woman who named her daughter Golda. She had little to no idea who Golda Meier(sp?) was except a woman who was a strong leader.
    Back to this case, how did this Hitler say his name? More or less as in German/English or as the word would be pronounced by Spanish speakers ( ee-TLAIR ). That pronunciation is different enough that it could be used (in speaking anyway) without bringing overt references to mind (like Jesus).

  4. There’s a professional football player named Stalin Colinet. Of Dominican descent, and grew up in NYV — both rare in the NFL.

  5. OK, I’ll bite: what’s NYV?

  6. NYC, sorry. New York is not a high school football town. He went to Boston College, not usually a big football school either. He hasn’t played NFL since 2001, alas.

  7. My family knows someone from Guatemala named Lenin (we say it in the Spanish way). Every time I refer to this individual, I am horrified that his mother named him as she did. The brother is not named Marx or Stalin but Eduardo. No, they are not a committed left-wing family, just semi-literate campesinos from Central America.

  8. We have old friends from L’vov who live in CA now, the wife’s name at birth was StalIna, remnant of the times of “universal love to Great Leader”
    The minute she was eligible for citizenship she’s changed it to Stella.
    In career criminal circles in Russia, as far as I know, it is forbidden to call someone by their name, even between themselves (only by nick) There is even a slang phrase – “I haven’t called you”, usage equal to “I’m a good guy”.

  9. Love the way Tatiana referred to L’viv the Russian way, as it’s such a seat of Ukrainian nationalism.
    Speaking of names, there was a Russian Jewish immigrant lady I knew whose first name was Ninel, which is Lenin spelled backwards. Stella is so much nicer than the ridiculous Stalina.

  10. There was a famous russian “psychic” in the sixties named Ninel Kulagina.

  11. Toby, sorry for the late response.
    L’vov is such an old city, it had seen them all – Austrians, Russians, Germans, Poles, Ukranians… Everyone has their own name for it (if you’re interested, look it up in recent LH post on city names – I’m sure there are at least half-a-dozen of them for L’vov)
    Ukranians have perfect right to call the city L’viv since it is Ukranian now administratively. I’m sure Poles who used to live there still call it Lwow (M.Farris, how to make “o” the Polish way?), as I can only call it L’vov.

  12. Yes, I realize that L’vov now L’viv has had different names (was it not Lemburg too under German control?) as different powers governed it. Which reminds me of another thing. I can get a general idea of when Russian speaking immigrants left the former USSR by the names they use to refer to certain cities in Ukraine (oops, I almost wrote in the Ukraine)and other places. Older arrivals call the city Kharkov, while more recent ones say Kharkiv, the official Ukrainian way. The capital of Moldova is no longer called by its Russian name, the only way I can pronounce it, anyway, Kishinov (can’t spell it but can say it.) L”viv is similar. I’m sure I’ve just scratched the surface of this topic with emmigrés calling their city of birth by the old Soviet name, expecially if they haven’t been back there in years to use the current name. And street names!!

  13. Toby the Hitle thing is an urban myth. Hate to break it to you, but people aren’t that uneducated. Sorry.

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