I have so far written a couple of columns on the subject of names and many have wondered if there is a formal study of names in academia. And the answer is yes. The study of names is known as Onomastics. The word, like many others, is of Greek etymology. It is traced to the Greek word onomastikos meaning of naming. The study of names is also known as onomatology, the study of names. While so far all the columns have been on personal names, today’s column is on place names. The study of place names is an important area because it is related to people’s history, where they come from and how they have marked their territory. A good example of the importance of place names may be seen in the South African context where post 1994 many places have experienced name change. This was largely because the original names were seen as impositions on communities and as part of the society’s actualization and as part of a healing process and self assertion by a new and inclusive society, the name changes were necessary. In Botswana name changes have been proposed at the level of spelling change where Anglocentric spellings were to be replaced by names written in Setswana orthography. Examples include the name Mochudi which it has been argued should be spelt Motshodi, the name of a Mokwena king who once lived in the current Mochudi area around the time when the Bangwaketse split from the Bakwena. It has also been suggested that Mahapye and Palapye should be spelt Mahalatswe and Palatswe respectively in line with Setswana orthography. This is so because Setswana doesn’t have the [pye] combination in its morphology. Linguistically speaking, the [pye] combination violates Setswana phonotactics. But I wish to look at the basic meaning of many of the names of our villages, cattle posts and farms focusing at some of the most shocking, colourful and sheer hilarious names.
Certain place names are just animal names such as Mmutlane, small rabbit. Some are about parts of animals or parts of the body. Such names include Betesankwe, the leopard’s liver, Dibete, livers, Gatalwanare, the buffalo skull, Hubasanoko, the porcupine’s chest, Mabele, breasts, Mabeleapodi, goat breasts, Moreomabele, the tree with breasts. Not far from Bobonong is the village of Moreomaoto, the tree with legs. There is also Kotolanamane, the calf’s leg in Kweneng and Marapong, the place of the bones, which lies west of Francistown. We also have Otolanong, the vulture’s leg and Nakalaphala (a place just before Betesankwe), an impala’s horn. On your way to Jwaneng just outside Kanye there is a place called Motlhalawakgomo, the cow’s tracks. On your way to Lobatse from Kanye, just before Molapowabojang, the grass river, there is a place called Mosamowakwena, a crocodile’s pillow! Some 15km from Gumare on the way to Etsha 6 there is Matheamodimo, God’s saliva! Some of our village names are about animal behaviour patterns and the sounds they make. There are place names such as Taudiarora, lions roar, Botlhapatlou, where the elephants bath, Dibajakwena, the crocodile pond, Gasegwagwa, the place of the frog. As you approach Mahalapye from Palapye there is a place called Monkgatau, one who smells a lion. Other names about tau are Motshegaletau, one who laughs with a lion and Lentsweletau, the hill has a lion. It is not only lions which have been associated with a hill. You also have the place Tlapaladipoo, the hill of bulls and the most bizarre Mogatsapoo, the bull’s wife!
However if you want to find some very colourful names, you have to go to Kgatleng. You don’t even have to leave the village of Mochudi. In there you will find a place called Diphsinyeng in Boseja, the place of farts! From the place of farts you can visit the cattle post of Sebonwane, the small anus!
Some names refer to actions, acts and activities between and amongst persons. You have the place of Borobadilepe, the place of the breaking of axes, Katimamolilo, I put off the fire whose meanings are possibly idiomatic. Tshidilamolomo, lip massaging is another weird name whose etymology is known by few in the area. Ditshegwane is a village that lies 15km west of Letlhakeng. The name is delightful. It means little laughters or simply put giggles!
More violence is depicted in Thakadialwa, age mates are fighting and Kgaphamadi, scrape off blood. In Kgatleng you will also find the morbid name Mabolaelo, the place of slaughter. We also have a ward in Molepolole which seems to bemoan the death of chickens. It is only known as Boswelakoko, the place where a chicken died.
There are names which it isn’t clear if they are social commentary or not. These are names such as Polokabatho, save the people or the place next to Tobane: Tonkieasotega, a donkey suffers! On your way to Mmathethe from Kanye there are farms on the way called Pelotshetlha, greed. Mhalapitsa is one who scrapes the pot.
There are miscellaneous names which have for many years caused wonder amongst those unfamiliar with the areas. Amongst these names are Kgomodiatshaba, the cows are fleeing, Palamaokuwe, climb and scream; Phuthadikobo, fold the blankets; Tlhareseleele, the tall tree; Patayamatebele, the open gravel road of the Ndebeles. Not far from Serowe you have Tshimoyapula, the rain farm and Mosaditswene is obviously from the Setswana proverb: mosaditshwene o jewa mabogo ‘a woman’s beauty lies in what she can do’.
What we have discussed above demonstrates the richness of Botswana’s naming system. The names themselves are only symbols to the rich meanings which are embedded in the social context within which the names are found. The commentary above is rather superficial. A deeper understanding of Botswana names is not in translations; it rather lies in the stories behind the names. To fully understand the meanings of names one has to interview the residents of these villages and hear how the names were given. It is only then, that we will be able to fully appreciate the wealth of our national names. Having said that, there are two place names which I have always found amazing. One is found on the outskirts of Gaborone, another in Lebowakgomo in South Africa. These are Tsolamosese and Ragoleajewa!