Meaningless?

Keneil NameI have a Jamaican name. That is a ‘fact’ that I can’t be sure of. Yet, it is one that I derive some level of national pride from.

I’ve known a few Keneils in my life, directly and indirectly. From cricketer Keneil Irving, to international footballer Keneil Moodie, to the Keneil who was a few forms below me in high school, to the little girl named Keneille that I met in my first year of university, to the Keneil whose name I saw on some class list on a door a year or so later, to the Keniel I met at a Bible study one Sabbath night on campus.

All of them, except for the last one, definitely Jamaican.

As one person said, though, when I told her my thoughts on my name possibly being Jamaican in origin, “Oh, that means it has no meaning, then.” You know, she might be right. No names database I’ve found has a meaning for the name. The only hint I’ve found is in the Breton language of Brittany, France. In this language, “keneil” (and, by the way, I have no idea how this would be pronounced) means “friend”. And, of course, I have no way of knowing that this is the origin of my name, or any reason to believe it is.

But, that is one characteristic of Jamaican names, isn’t it? Meaninglessness. Children are often given names that are amalgamation of their parents’ (Nick + Zahra -> Nahra), or strange spellings of common names (Pannelopi, rather than Penelope). In some Jamaican communities, too, there seems to be an unspoken rule that a child be given both a ‘real’ and a ‘pet’ name. A child named John-Pierre might be called Tutu Man by all his family and neighbours. Some of these pet names are invented ones, with little by way of linguistic history or origin.

Centuries ago, Africans were taken from their homes and placed on this tiny island, where they were forced to work, and live. And to forget. Their cultures, their languages were taken from them. They were not even allowed to name themselves.

But, they had more freedom than their captors understood. As if in rebellion against the oppression, they developed their own language, a masterpiece created with the raw materials of their ancestral memory and their captors. And, when the chains were removed, they named their children out of their own culture.

I am Keneil. And I am Jamaican.

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2 Responses to Meaningless?

  1. Robyn says:

    I was thinking about this post today, and the meaning behind ‘name meanings’. Most European and Asian names have meanings because they were taken from words in older languages – that’s where all of these ‘meanings’ come from. Just because we don’t appropriate our names from other words in languages (I’m looking at you, Blanket) doesn’t mean they’re devoid of meaning.

    Our names are fraught with history and emotion, identity even (like the example you gave of parents amalgamating their own names), as opposed to belonging to some kind of lexicon. Jamaican name meanings are harder to define, not absent.

    Also, the pet name thing is an African retention phenomenon. Parents didn’t want evil spirits to know the child’s real name (because, y’know, names have power) so they would use another name around the home.

    Liked by 1 person

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