What Is In a Name?

Were you called a derogatory nickname when you were growing up? I was. In high school, some of the children started calling me “toad”. I never fully understood why. I suspect it had something to do with my round body shape (at the time) and short neck. Eventually the name morphed to “nematode”. Again, I can’t recall why. For the remainder of my high school days, I bounced between “nema” and “toad”. These names hurt, particularly because they were always used with an accompanying sneer. I was bright, driven, and ambitious. I am not sure whether these characteristics (in addition to the odd name for my adopted environment) added to the need for such taunting. The name “disappeared” when I moved on to my pre-university preparatory school. In university, in my dormitory, I was nicknamed (as was the dormitory hazing tradition for all incoming freshmen) “hemorrhoids”. Others received even more despicable names. I hated this name too. On one occasion a dormmate thought it would be funny to write “fat black bitch” on my note pad. (I myself was not guiltless. As a senior I participated in the naming ritual as well.) Even as I navigated my own self-worth through these various names that were directed my way, I allowed myself to be driven by an intense desire to succeed…but the names lodged themselves somewhere within me. In my adult years, I allowed myself to be referred to by my initials, “MK”, as a measure of convenience for others.

I recently had to revisit all of this with a past acquaintance and remind them of the significance of the names we are given by our parents. For most of us, these names symbolize origins, projections, and futures that our forbearers desired for us. We honor each other well when we refer to our bestowed names.

If you can relate to my story, I am sorry that people in your past have not honored your name. If I was one of those people, please forgive me. I honor your name today.  If you were one of those people who used nicknames in ways that were offensive and hurtful, I invite you to explore an offer of amends for your actions.  If you suspect that someone has created or acceded to the use of a moniker, be curious about how they would be preferred to be called.  You honor them well, by putting effort into knowing them through the correct use and pronunciation of their name.

My name is Mphatso Khoza. Mphatso means “gift” in Chichewa, the language of my father’s people. The Khoza’s are a large subgroup of the Xhosa nation, a southern African people of Bantu heritage, that stretches from South Africa to Zambia. I invite you to know me by my name. No other…

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