“What does your name mean?”

Ever since I started traveling and meeting people from outside Kerala, I’ve been asked this question on multiple occasions: “What does your name Sijo mean?”. Let me get to the answer straight away. It does not mean anything. Its just Sijo!

There was a time in Mallu land when a particular practice of naming their kids was popular. You mash up the sounds from the names of your parents and come up with a new name. So in my case, it ended up as Sijo — My father’s name is George and my mother’s name is Santha. They mashed up Sa and Go and tweaked it a bit to reach Sijo. In my sister’s case it ended up as Ginsy — Dad’s Go and Mom’s Sa put together and tweaked to reach Ginsy. Which parents sounds go first and second, well, there also is a pattern there. For the first kid, its dad’s name sound first and mom’s name sound second and for the second kid, it’s the other way around. From the third kid onwards, its whatever. But most people did not end up being tested on the limits of that rule since around that time, the cultural norm by then was to have two kids. (Research shows that you invest more and in fewer kids with rising prosperity).

Around the time that I was born, quite a lot of kids used to be named this way. And that approach and the derivatives of that approach resulted in many in my generation having names like Sijo, Jijo. Lijo, Biji, Liji, Tojo etc. It’s a trademark Mallu thing and it was so natural for us to come across such a name. It was also a dead giveaway that someone is a Mallu. Given this context, I was quite surprised and amused when I used to come across the question “Is Sijo a real name?” from people outside Kerala. No Mallu would have ever asked me that question. It was both amusing and insightful.

Side story: My Dad’s younger brother’s name is Somy and his wife’s name is Mini. With their names, you have a unique situation. You see, if you write the word in Mallu script and then you try to mash up the sounds, however you try mashing up the first and last sounds of both names, you will still end up with only Somy and Mini!. Note: It works that way only when you attempt in after writing their name in Mallu script and their kids are named Riya & Rony.

So thats the story of the name Sijo. After the advent of Google, I discovered that “Sijo” is also a form of Korean short form poetry. I sometimes use this as trivia when the name related conversation presents itself; if I’m in a mood to extend the conversation that is.

I was also equally amused when I came to realize that such a short and simple name as Sijo could have such diverse pronunciations. The versions I came across included, but were not limited to, Seejo, Sizo, Shizho etc with the most popular one being (way more popular than Sijo itself) Seejo. Infact, given this scenario (and also at times when Im not really in the mood for answering all those follow up questions) I just resort to introducing myself as George. Dare I say Kuruvilla. I would then have to go on to explain how I and that fast bowler Aby Kuruvilla are not related. This situation arises only if the person gets to get over the oddity of the name Kuruvilla. Sometimes the expressions are as if they were exposed to an absolutely foreign name. (On the Aby Kuruvilla piece for purposes of clarity, no, we are not related).

This phenomenon is observed when I’m traveling in other parts of India. Have not run into similar situations while traveling abroad. When traveling abroad, people have asked me how do you spell your name or how do you say your name and stuff. But never, why such a name and what does that mean? Coming to think of it, how do you say your name is not a question I come across within the Indian context? Hmm. That’s also an interesting pattern.

We come up with names names because we need some sort of an easier reference system to refer to that person or object when we communicate. Within that context, its not really required that every name should have a meaning. Do we really question or care why the table was named table and why coffee was named coffee? I think the practice of asking meaning of names has its roots from the origin of words itself. As language developed, most words were derived from other words (either from same language or other languages) mostly by building on their meaning or at times by making them sound similar. This approach was developed as an easier framework to come up with new words and also to serve as an intuitive system to learn and / or figure out words.

We witness a similar approach when it comes to some of the words in the modern vocabulary and the bulk of it does get captured in urban dictionary. The modern urban dictionary frameworks have substantially been revamped btw. Sexting is fairly intuitive but Im still at a loss as to how the word twerking came about.

Side story again: I very recently got traumatized when a friend of mine, who also happens to be a great fan of Victorian era and all things vintage, introduced me to this word “Albatross”. She said it was from a poem. I googled it up and ended up reading the urban dictionary definition first. I really shouldn’t have. To find out how bad it was, you will need to check that out for yourself. But don’t tell me I didn’t warn you. Now, I’m also wondering what sort of poems she would be reading. Coming to think of it, “Poorapattu” is also a poem afterall. Hmm.

I have seen people going into fits of rage and irritation when someone misspells or mispronounces their names. Personally, I’m cool with this happening. I am not really particular about how people say my name and am really cool about the fact that my name does not have a meaning. The way I see it, not having a meaning for my name is one less thing that I need to be confine myself to live up to. After all, its just a name. At the end of the day, the name is just a string of sounds sounds patched together and its primary objective is to sort of serve as a unique identifier while communicating. To that end, the name Sijo serves just fine. Infact, it makes it easier on occasions to strike a conversation when you very clearly know that this is going to be one of the questions that pop up in the earlier parts of the conversation. Similar to how you know that the opening question in an interview will be “Tell me something about yourself”! Its like someone opening a chess game with a particular move. If you clearly know what the other persons move is going to be, you can very clearly prepare your approach to counter that and use it to your advantage even.

And when seen from that context, I know that the conversation has passed the initial awkward stages and is transitioning into some sort of a comfort stage every time I hear this question come my way: “What does your name mean?”

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